The Premack Principle – Cambridge Puppy Training

premack principle

In dog training there is so much terminology thrown around, quite often it can seem confusing and mind-boggling! Largely, the terms used are extremely simple and many times you may follow a line of training which encapsulates many varying terms, and not even realise it. One of those may well be what is called the ‘Premack principle’. I will hazard a guess many of us, without realising, have encountered the Premack principle on more than a few occasions!

So, what is the Premack principle? We can break the Premack principle down into ‘the probability of behaviours’. So, essentially, a high probability behaviour will reinforce a low probability behaviour. For example, a lot of people liken the Premack principle to the age old problem of ‘how to get children to eat their vegetables’! What do we often do? We offer a lovely dessert if they eat the veg! So, we use the more probable behaviour (eating lovely dessert!) to reinforce the less probable behaviour (eating boring veg!). In this scenario, a mum will use the Principle to change the boring vegetable eating into a behaviour which is more likely to be repeated in the future, by reinforcing it with a high probability behaviour, eating dessert.

Professor David Premack was the mind behind the Premack principle. Studying cebus monkeys, he suggested that a person will perform a less desirable activity in order to access a more desirable activity, thereby showing the activity itself is a reinforcer.

When we look at dog training, or specifically puppy training, we can use the exact same principle! If you have a think about your own puppy, what are his high probability behaviours? A common behaviour used to explain the Premack principle is chasing squirrels, a lot of dogs have the instinctive desire to chase anything fast moving and if it squeaks, even better! So, we can say that squirrel chasing is a high probability behaviour. A low probability behaviour is giving you eye contact or walking to heel when the puppy spots a squirrel.

High probability behaviour = chasing squirrels
Low probability behaviour = offering eye contact

We can then use our high probability behaviour, as a reinforcer for our low probability behaviour. We can ask for eye contact, and then allow a quick run to see where the squirrel disappeared to! By reinforcing the eye contact with a high probability behaviour we are increasing the likelihood of the low probability behaviour being repeated (eye contact).

The squirrel chasing example is a common one, however you can transfer this principle to many different areas of training. A dog has his own unique personality and each dog will have his own list of ‘high probability’ behaviours and ‘low probability’ behaviours. For example, a dog who loves meeting other dogs more than anything in the world, and who is very unlikely to walk to on a loose lead up to another dog to say hello, may benefit from using the Premack principle. We could, for example, use our high probability behaviour to reinforce our low probability behaviour. Maybe we could ask our pup to sit and offer eye contact before being released to say hello, starting off for a second or two and building up the duration of the sit, always following up with our brilliantly valuable reinforcer of saying hello to the other dog. Try to know your pups capabilities, and set them up to succeed, taking it at your pups pace every step of the way. Once your pup understands there is a bit of a ‘deal’ going on, a trade if you like, they will soon start to catch on to when and indeed where, the reward is coming from and what needs to be done to gain it. The association will be made fairly quickly.

It can be interesting to try and come up with your OWN list of probable behaviours. Remember, probable behaviours are any behaviours which will occur when completely free and under no control at all. Mine, for example, would include

  • cuddle dogs
  • check phone
  • eat biscuits
  • check emails
  • watch soaps
  • walk

I could go on! Why not have a go writing a list of probable behaviours for your pup? My dog would like have a list like this:

  • eating
  • running about on the grass
  • rolling in fox poo
  • playing with her ball
  • greeting dog friends
  • greeting human friends
  • jumping (being on back legs!)

This could be extended hugely, any probable behaviour you can think of can be included and there are more than you may realise.

You could also write a ‘less probable behaviours’ list, for my dog this may include:

  • coming to have nails clipped
  • sit to greet human friends
  • stay still for teeth cleaning
  • leave fox poo
  • ignore a squirrel

This is a slightly tongue-in-cheek list, but you get the idea! So I could, in theory, use her love of greeting friends as a reinforcer for sitting whilst they approach. I’m not going to because I enjoy her excitement at seeing her friends, but if you were trying to achieve a sit upon greeting you could utilise the Premack principle to do so.

Long term, the low probability behaviours become high probability behaviours due to the association with the really very strong reinforcers you have associated them with. Try and remember when you are training any behaviour, it is not always about the removal reinforcement to prevent one behaviour and then teach another, it can often be about thinking ‘outside the box’ and utilising all the reinforcement at your disposal. Use your pups natural instincts, their innate abilities and add these to your reinforcement toolbox!

For more information about this topic or the services I offer just get in touch!
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Arousal in puppies – Cambridge Puppy Training

arousal in puppies

Arousal in dogs is something you no doubt all encounter, but maybe aren’t aware or don’t realise exactly what it is. In puppies, especially, it’s important to know what arousal means, and how it can influence not only the behaviour of your puppy generally but how you interact with your puppy on a day to day basis. Often we say our pups are naughty, over excitable, maybe fearful, maybe we even go as far as to say they get angry! All of these are fairly common words thrown about when thinking about how our puppies behave. But how is arousal linked to all of this? And what can we do to simply calm our puppies down and limit over-arousal?

So, what is arousal? Simply put, it is the responsiveness of a dog to an event and/or stimuli. This event could be anything from you, to a toy, to a particular environment, to another dog. Variation in arousal levels can dictate the response to any event/stimuli, so the same event/stimuli can elicit very different responses from a dog due to a difference in arousal levels. The same stimuli or situation results in very different emotional and behavioural responses, dependent on the arousal level of the dog at that given time. Arousal in dogs can increase heart rate and blood pressure, increase alertness and responsiveness, plus mobility. This, you can imagine, can interfere and interrupt ‘normal’ function and result in poor judgement and undesirable behaviours. There is a lot of scientific background with regards to arousal, however I won’t delve too much into the neurological patterns that occur for fear of boring you all with scientific terminology!

Think, for example, you are playing with your puppy, all is going fine and you’re having a nice little game. All of a sudden it gets a bit too much, your pups teeth land on YOU and it hurts, a LOT. It’s a harder bite than usual and you’re quite dismayed as to why your pup has suddenly shown this increase in nastiness! What has essentially happened here is the arousal level has risen, to the point the puppy is not able to reliably bite with the same level of inhibition as normal. He may have learned fairly good bite inhibition, he never normally bites this hard, but because of the arousal level being so high during the play, and rising quickly, he is unable to gauge correctly how hard is too hard to bite.

Arousal levels being so high may lead to all manner of other behaviours we generally do not like. Barking for example, destructive behaviours, biting on the lead when walking because you have seen another dog, and if left can result in redirection (redirect the frustration onto YOU rather than the trigger, termed trigger frustration). The key point to remember with arousal, it does not simply ‘go down’. It can take up to 72 hours for arousal levels to decrease back to a baseline level. The more the arousal levels go up, the more likely you are to see behaviours you don’t like, even going as far as to see fear responses to neutral stimuli.

So, what can we expect to see from a puppy who is becoming over-aroused?

  • Higher heart rate
  • Tense body – ready for action!
  • Panting
  • Jumping
  • Barking (incessantly!)
  • Mouthing/biting
  • Tail chasing/spinning
  • Lack of control over impulses

So, what can we do about over-arousal? Largely, it’s not very hard to put into place some easy rules to follow. We simply need to slightly alter the way we interact with our pups and manage their exposures to triggers responsibly.

  • Food – be sure you are confident you are feeding a good quality food. It’s personal choice as to how your feed your pup kibble/raw etc, however if you are in doubt about the quality or ingredients ask your vet for advice, some dog foods have been said to increase hyperactivity.
  • Correct levels of exercise and mental stimulation – ensure you are exercising the right amount for the breed and age of your pup and providing daily mental stimulation which encourages calmness and appropriate activities.
  • Avoid daily over-excitement – is there one particular place that your pup gets ridiculously over-excited? Avoid exposing your pup to this environment day in and day out. Too much of a good thing can be quite over-arousing! For example a particular dog park, dog day care, a particular game you play.
  • Desensitize – if you have identified the trigger which sends your pup crazy, work on it! For advice on desensitization get in touch.
  • Manage situations to avoid repetition – repeating a behaviour over and over again, avoid this if we can, manage situations so your pup doesn’t become so over-excited! Alter your style of play for example, switch from games involving tuggy to games involving ‘scent work’.
  • Hands off – if your pup finds your hands on him overexciting, maybe ask for a sit/down prior to stroking for example to try and keep arousal low.

I have talked about arousal levels in puppies before, a good idea is to periodically throughout games ask for a sit/down, and start to add the cue word ‘settle’ in as you progress. This is called the ‘chill out game’. Puppies are happy bouncy bundles of fluff and we love them for it! But be aware of arousal levels, keep it in the back of your mind when interacting with your pup. It’s always hugely important to be aware of general arousal in your pup if you have children, children do add another level of excitement to any household and this needs to be taken into consideration when bringing a puppy into the family.

For more information about his topic or the 1-2-1’s I offer just get in touch!
Instagram: @cambridgepuppytraining

Using food in puppy training; the myths! – Cambridge Puppy Training

myths in puppy training

Most dog training clubs and indeed dog trainers these days, do largely, use food for training. Canine science has come a long way in recent years and we have discovered more and more about how dogs learn. Using food (treats), for training, is seen by some as a ‘bad’ idea. Food, essentially, is a training tool, a reinforcement tool and a very effective one. In a puppy training class for example, the distraction level is high, the focus you need from your pup is usually easily gained by food. However there are few common myths out there as to why using food or treats to train is a bad idea, so I’m going to look at a few of these in detail.

Myth #1
My dog will get fat
When teaching a lot of new behaviours the rate of reinforcement is often high, so yes essentially we are using a fair amount of food or treats. If you are teaching a variety of new behaviours, plus add in the ‘daily training’ you are doing throughout any given day ie. door way manners, impulse control etc, you may feel like you are forever feeding your pup and worry he will become hugely obese! Food is NOT the only reinforcer out there, life is full of rewards. Toys/games for example are a great reinforcement tool. A run in the garden, a play off lead, access to a certain area of the house, a walk, all of these are reinforcers. Using food for teaching a behaviour and using ‘life rewards’ to maintain it is always perfectly possible. However when using food, remember not all treats need to be fattening. Firstly, a lot of dogs actually enjoy things like chopped carrot! Secondly, look at the treats you use, you may find you could significantly reduce the fat content in them by switching to a different type. Also, and most importantly, use your dogs daily food ration as your treats! He’ll not have any greater calorie intake at all.

Myth #2
If I use food he will only do it when I have treats on me
It’s common for people not to want to use treats because they believe a dog will only then perform if you have a treat. If this does happen through lure and reward training, you have trained wrong. When using treats to train any new behaviour it is absolutely essential you phase that lure out quickly. The lure is there purely to show your pup HOW to do something, once it is established which does not take long, the lure needs to go! If you keep the lure there longer than it needs to be, you are essentially bribing your pup, THIS will result in a dog who will only perform if there is a treat in sight. A bribe is shown to the dog prior to the behaviour being done, a reinforcer will be shown AFTER the behaviour has been done. Try and remember to remove the treat from your pups nose as quickly as you can. By using lures for too long your pup may well have learned the behaviours he has been taught are ONLY to be done when there is a treat in sight. Remember they don’t generalise like we do and may well not understand HOW to perform a behaviour without a treat on the nose if not trained within that context.

Myth #3
My dog should do it because I ask
Really? Do you work for free? I don’t, and I LOVE what I do, but I don’t do it for free. This probably harks back to days gone by when dog training was based around intimidation and force, and dogs certainly did perform behaviours simply ‘because they were asked’, due to the fact they had been shown an aversive consequence to NOT doing what they were asked. In days gone by a dog trainer would pinch a dogs ear until it sat, and release the ear when they did. Did the dog sit quicker next time? Definitely. Did it hurt the dog? Without a doubt. Luckily times have changed and people do now realise, a dog is not ‘expected’ to work for nothing, they are not our hapless slaves after all. Research has actually shown dogs have a higher instance of aggression when trained via aversive techniques (Meghan Herron, AABS). So, in short, using the LIMA principle (least intrusive minimally aversive) is the most effective method of training. Further studies have shown positive reinforcement alone resulted in the least attention seeking, fear/avoidance and aggression behaviours occurring (Blackwell, The relationship between training methods and the occurrence of behaviour problems, JVB). So, no, a dog is a dog and must be rewarded for the good behaviour he offers if they are expected to repeat that behaviour again.

Myth #4
All dog should like all food/treats
Well, not all people like chocolate do they? Most do, but SOME (strange) people don’t. Much like with dogs, some find other things MORE rewarding and that’s just fine. Get to know your dog, make a list of HIS top 10 favourite things, let that guide you in what you use as your reinforcers. You will likely find some kind of food/treat does indeed feature on the list, but it may not be no. 1!!

Can you think of any more? Let me know!!

For more information about the 1-2-1’s I offer just get in touch!
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Car sickness in puppies – Cambridge Puppy Training

car sickness in puppies

Car sickness in puppies is relatively common, and whilst it is largely something they will ‘grow out’ of, it can be unpleasant for them, and us! Not every puppy will suffer with car sickness, however many do. But why does it happen? And what can we do about it?

Firstly, what exactly is it? Well motion sickness is the feeling of nausea, resulting in vomiting due to the motion of ie. a vehicle. It does not always present itself as actual vomiting, other symptoms may include dizziness or general feeling of nausea. Motion sickness is more prevalent in younger dogs than older, and generally it will have subsided by the time a dog is around one year old.

But why does it occur in puppies? Well there could be a few reasons:

1. Ear development – there is a possibility the parts of the inner ear relating to balance aren’t fully developed, resulting in a feeling of nausea
2. Anxiety – our pups have spent the first weeks of their little lives in a stationary, home environment with their mum and siblings, without prior conditioning it may feel hugely overwhelming to travel in a car/van
3. Conditioned emotional response – if the journey home involved vomiting etc, the likelihood is the pup now associates the car with something quite distressing, thereby heightening the anxiety level
4. Ear problems – there could be a slight infection within the ear, or some kind of medical problem relating to the auditory senses causing sickness when in motion

These are just a few ideas. Motion sickness is something us humans suffer with too, and largely it is seen more in children and ‘grown out’ of just as with puppies. With humans, motion sickness can occur when there’s a vast difference between what is being seen through the eyes , and what is being heard by the auditory senses. In simple terms (because I am no doctor!) the conflict between sight and sound is confusing the brain and the result is a feeling of sickness. For your puppy, the trauma of leaving all it has ever known, his littermates and mum, may well be associated with a car journey when you left the breeder. If the stress of this causes sickness during the journey too, we now have a puppy who not only found the car distressing due to the loss of his family but also a place which made him feel quite poorly! We can see why cars may become a bit of a ‘scary place’ to our pups.

Gradual habituation to travel is essential. As stated above not ALL puppies will suffer with car sickness, however if we at least condition our pup to travel in a calm and relaxed way, we minimise the possibility of any stress when travelling. Once your pup is home, you can really start to work on introducing your pup to the car in a positive and gradual manner, showing your pup that the car does not always move, good things happen in the car, and if we get in the car it certainly doesn’t always mean we are going to the vets (something which is so often the case when we have a pup!).

So, what measures can we take to ensure a smooth and positive exposure to travel?

  • Know the signs – motion sickness is not purely about vomiting, there are other signs to look out for such as whining, drooling, licking lips and panting. Watch out for these, if you feel your pup may be about to vomit, just pull over and give your pup some air.
  • Gradual exposure – don’t attempt 30 minute drives to start off with, start with very short journeys in the car, a few minutes at a time preferably. Start by simply putting your pup in the car without even switching the engine on, reward for calmness and any settling behaviours offered, repeat a few times. The next day maybe switch the engine on but don’t travel anywhere, the next day possibly drive to the end of the road and back etc etc. Ensure your pup is RELAXED throughout the process.
  • Use a secure crate/carrier – not only to provide a stable and calm environment for your pup, but also for safety, an anxious pup will likely move about a lot more!
  • Stillness – keeping as still as possible is advised for us humans when we have motion sickness, so ensuring your pup has more of a chance of keeping ‘still’ is a good idea!
  • No food prior – try not to feed your pup for a couple of hours before journeys.
  • Keep windows open – fresh air and a breeze may help.
  • Toilet! – make sure your pup has had adequate opportunity to go to the loo before journeys.
  • Have a special ‘car toy’ – try to have a special toy which your pup only has on car journeys, really showing him that the car is a fun place to be after all!
  • Anxiety aids – there are such items ie. Adaptil collars for helping to calm anxiety in dogs, the scientific evidence showing the efficacy of such products is varied and certainly not conclusive, however there are people who swear by them so worth a go I feel!
  • Water – ensure you have water readily available for your pup.
  • Drive well! – ensure you take corners and roundabouts gently and be mindful of sudden stopping or accelerating too harshly!
  • Not ALWAYS the vets – ensure we don’t get into the habit of only taking our pups out in the car to go somewhere ‘bad’! It’s easily done, but be sure to go to places your pup takes pleasure from in the car too,

If you feel your pup suffers with severe motion sickness, I would advise seeking veterinary advice. There are medications which can help if you feel your pup is struggling beyond the ‘normal’ realms of a bit of car sickness. Your vet will be able to guide you through the medications, and indeed advise as to whether or not it is needed.

Most pups do, as I said, grow out of car sickness. It is not pleasant, but by following the above guidelines hopefully your little pup will start to not only build up more of a positive association with the car, but even learn to enjoy car rides due to the added fun of his ‘car toy’.

For more information, just get in touch!
Instagram: @cambridgepuppytraining