If You Don't Eat Your Meat, You Can't Have Any Pudding

"How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" That classic line by Pink Floyd can send you flashing back to lava lamps and laser light shows but it is not only a great example of classic rock, it is a classic example of what behaviorist call Premack's Principal. It's also been dubbed Grandma's Rule because you don't need a PhD to understand that children will choke down their veggies if it leads to dessert. Well, guess what, it works with dogs too.  

For you scientific types, Premack's Principal states that "more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors." Or, "any high-frequency activity can be used as a reinforcer for any lower-frequency activity."

When we think of reward-based dog training, we tend to think about things we can carry in our pocket like treats or a tennis ball. These are great tools for training a dog initially because we have complete control over our dog's access to them. However, once your dog has been through the basic training, it is important to note that the world is full of things your dog finds rewarding, such as coming in the house, riding in the car or sniffing butts. Not everything in the environment can be used as a reward, (chasing cats for example) but there are a lot of every day moments that can be used to train your dog. 

Eating Your Meat to Get Your Pudding

We all know that happy-go-lucky dog that thinks every human on earth was put here to rub his belly. What's the problem with that you ask? Well, potential problems could be that the dog is pulling his owner's arm out of the socket to go greet this new person, or maybe the dog is off leash and that person is on the other side of a busy street or maybe that person is afraid of dogs. The trick is to take this activity that this dog obviously finds rewarding and put some structure into it.  What appears to be a distraction that kept this dog from listening to his owner could be an opportunity to throw in some training with a high valued reward. If this is your dog, here's what I recommend. Start with your dog on leash and have him sit by your side while you greet the person first. Once it's been established that they'd like to meet your dog, ask the person to ignore your dog until you release him from the sit. Then he is free to enjoy the belly rubs.  By insisting on a sit before the belly rub, you will be teaching your dog that "you can't have any pudding if  you don't eat your meat."

Below are some additional examples of ways to apply Granny's Rule.

  • If you are on your way to the park, walk your dog in heel position throwing in a few sits  at intersections. Once you're at the park, give him his free playtime. The meat is the structured walk and the pudding is the play time at the park.
  • If your dog is in the backyard and it's time to bring him in, have your dog comesit and stay at the door before inviting him in. The come-sit-stay at the back door is the meat and coming in the house is the pudding

These are just a few examples. Make your own list of every day training opportunities  and practice, practice, practice. With practice, patience and consistency, you will have a polite companion that understands that he has to earn his dessert and not a spoiled brat chanting "we don't need no education!"

--Chad