Doing Things Grandma's Way

When we were younger we learned how to make responsible choices by first doing something boring or less interesting in order to get what we really wanted. "First eat your vegetables and then you can have dessert." Grandma's psychology was always to sweeten the options by trading something great for something that was just okay. Her trades worked because the kids always knew how to earn what they wanted.

We can use Grandma's psychology to get what we want from our dogs.

Let's have a look at how to use rewards to teach your dog what you want him to do. Remember, a reward is whatever your dog wants most at the moment.

Look at your dog and ask yourself, "What does he want most right now?" Then determine what he can do for you to earn what he wants. That is your training opportunity. Does he want a certain toy, a car ride, a walk? It will change throughout the day, so pay attention to what he wants at the moment because that's your leverage.

Here's the psychology we use to get what we want from our dogs:

"First give me what I want and then I will give you what you want."

Grandma might say,

"First do your homework, and then you can watch TV." "First eat your vegetables, and then you can have ice cream."

It's a principle of behavioral psychology known as Premack's Principle, named for the psychologist who defined and wrote about it. However, parents have understood how well this works long before it ever had a name. The principle works equally well in dog training.

Using Psychology in Dog Training

Here's the principle in dog terms. More probable behaviors can be used to reinforce less probable behaviors. Probable refers to how desirable the behavior is to the dog at the moment. The more desirable a thing is to the dog, the more probable it is that he will choose that thing first. Decide what the dog wants most right now. That's your best reinforcer. Then decide what you will ask him to do for you to earn what he wants.

  • Does your dog want to go play in the yard? First he has to sit at the door and wait to be released. Then he gets what he wants.
  • Does he want to walk with you in the neighborhood? First he has to walk on a loose leash beside you. Then he gets what he wants.
  • Does he want to greet and receive attention from a visitor? First he has to keep all four feet on the floor. Then he gets what he wants.

In the examples, the reinforcers are

  • playing in the yard, sniffing out exciting odors, chasing squirrels, barking at birds and all kinds of wonderful dog fun,
  • walking with you, enjoying your attention and making sure all's well in the neighborhood,
  • receiving petting, love and attention from a new person or an old friend.

To earn what he wants most, the dog must first do something he wants less.

  • He's excited about going out to play but he understands that he has to first sit and wait for permission.
  • He loves going for a walk but he understands that he must first use good manners and walk on a loose leash.
  • He wants to be included in greeting visitors but he understands that he must first keep his feet planted on the floor.

Think of something you can ask your dog to do first before you allow him to have what he wants. Keep it simple and be sure both the more probable and the less probable behavior is reasonable and easily within your dog's ability. Make it a game and have fun with it!