A Busy Dog is a Happy Dog

July 12, 2011

It is recognized nowadays that a dog that is confined for long periods of time without stimulation, both mental and physical, can develop behavioural problems such as chewing of inappropriate items, digging and excessive vocalization, amongst others.  Providing a large area for a dog “to run around in” is not enough, unless this area contains many interesting things to smell and to eat and to look at.  Stimulation should involve all the dog’s senses.

Feral or Village dogs spend about 80% of their waking hours hunting and scavenging for food. Domestic dogs have been helping and working alongside us for thousands of years, and most are bred for a specific purpose, such as hunting, farming or protection. For example, retrievers and pointers were bred to locate and fetch game and water birds. Scent hounds, like coonhounds and beagles, were bred to find rabbits, foxes and other small prey. Dogs like German shepherds, collies, cattle dogs and sheepdogs were bred to herd livestock.

Whether dogs were working for us or scavenging on their own, their survival once depended on lots of exercise and problem solving, all in their quest for food.  Do we provide all this for our pets?  The common scenario for most dogs is that while we’re away at work all day, they sleep.  When we come home, we serve them free food in a bowl—no effort required from them.  They eat more calories than they can use.  The result is dogs who are bored silly, often overweight and have too much energy.  To alleviate this boredom and to get rid of all this excess energy, our pet dog will often indulge in totally unacceptable behaviour such as shredding the outdoor furniture (or even the indoor furniture if she’s confined indoors), tipping up the dustbin (guaranteed to keep her busy for hours), digging holes in a newly planted flower beds.  Her welcome home behaviour will also be a little over the top because she’s so pleased that her boring, unproductive day has come to an end.

If you spend a little time giving your dog “jobs” to do while you’re away, there will be no unpleasant surprises for you when you get home, and you will also have a calmer, more relaxed and “fulfilled” pet, without having to start taking up sheep or cattle herding, or hunting ducks and geese.

In my next post I’ll discuss some ways that you can keep your dog “busy” and happy.

The Premack Principle and the Recall

April 8, 2011

Both these photographs show dogs that are exhibiting high-probability behaviours. David Premack, a psychologist, proposed the rule that high probability behaviours can be used to reinforce low-probability behaviours.  We can use this principle when training dogs very successfully.

High-probability behaviours are activities which are performed voluntarily and which are enjoyed for themselves without the intervention of the handler or owner.  Some examples of this would be playing with other dogs (if your dog is a social butterfly), chasing monkeys or squirrels, barking at the neighbour’s dogs through the fence, sniffing interesting smells.

Low-probability behaviours, on the other hand are behaviours which are often the learned or trained behaviours, such as the recall and walking on a loose leash.

The Premack Principle works extremely well if applied to the recall.  In a familiar, non-distracting environment your dog’s recall is probably faultless.  He comes to you at full speed whenever he is called, and you reward him with lavish praise, or a treat, or a game.  You think that you have a great recall.  But, then you take your dog to the local dog park, or to the beach and you probably find that your recall is awful.  Your dog might eventually come to you, and what do you do?  You promptly put him on lead, walk him to the car and go home.  You have not used premack.  What you have done is effectively punished your dog by removing something he wants.  The way Premack works in this instance is that instead of putting your dog on leash you send him back to sniff, or play, or indulge in whatever activity he was doing before you called him.  If you repeat this a few times you will find that each time the recall becomes more and more enthusiastic. Your dog has learnt that to get what he wants (high probability “stuff”) he has to do what you want (low probability “stuff” under the circumstances).

You can use Premack to strengthen any learned behaviours.  I am sure you can think of a few instances where Premack would be useful.  Calling your dog out of a play situation, barking at the neighbours dog through the fence, chasing seagulls on the beach.  The list goes on….

Try Premack next time you take your dog out with you to make his learned behaviours stronger.  You’ll be amazed at the result.

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