Advanced Positive Reinforcement: Beyond Treats

Positive reinforcement is essentially giving a reward in response to a behavior. The reward is something good and it is supposed to make the behavior more likely to happen again in the future. When people think positive reinforcement, especially with dogs, they think of treats. Pieces of cheese or hotdog used to teach a dog a trick. Recently, I've been reminded of the fact that there are other things that can be used to reinforce that go beyond treats. Sometimes, a behavior or activity can be used as a positive reinforcement.

When training a dog, I do not have a problem with using aversive techniques. While that is true, I will also readily acknowledge that if a behavior can be taught without aversive pressure, this behavior will "stick" better with the dog. Because of this "stickiness", when I train, I will lean toward positive reinforcement as much as possible.



For several years now, much of my free time in the winter has been spent training wild birds of prey for the purpose of cooperative hunting. During that time, I observed something that altered the way I trained the birds. During the initial training of the birds, treats of raw meat are vital to convince the hawk to cooperate. Later in the training, when the hawk is to perform off leash, treats are not as big a motivator as they once were. I learned in later training that chasing is a big motivator for a hawk. It isn't essential that the hawk catch every thing it chases. What is essential is that the hawk has opportunity to chase. When the hawk is given a chance to chase things, the hawk is much more willing to cooperate and stay close during the hunt. I've also had occasion to use this technique with some of the dogs I have trained.

Since I have started blogging about training, I have learned that this concept has a name: the Premack Principle. It is often called "Grandma's Rule". Eggheads have difficult-to-understand definitions of this idea, but here it is in a nutshell: a high frequency activity can be used as a reinforcer for any lower frequency activity. I've heard it put another way: You cannot have any ice cream until you have eaten all your vegetables. Putting it more simply still, behaviors and activities can be used as reinforcers just as much as treats.

Why Do I Care

The reason I care is because of the fact that, often, in the field, treats are not enough of a motivator to shape behavior. Of all the pointing breed dogs I've trained (4 now), there is not a single one of them that would take any sort of treat in the field. In order to train in the field, something even more motivating is needed, or I need to resort to aversive techniques.

Future Plans - Steady To Wing, Shot, And Fall

I ought to be able to use the Premack principle to convince Shiloh to hold his point until I release him from his point; after the bird has flown and has been shot. The reason I want this is that Shiloh burns a tremendous amount of energy chasing. He should be able to hunt much longer than he does, but all the chasing wears him out. Also, there is the remote possibility that there maybe two or more birds that are being pointed. Chasing one may cause a missed opportunity on the other.

I'm thinking one way to do this is to have two birds planted. I'll get Shiloh to a place where he can point the first one. I'll launch it and restrain him briefly, while giving him the command to stand still (whoa). Then I'll launch the second one and release him from the whoa to let him chase. What is nice about this is I can make the whole chain of behaviors of pointing, marking, and retrieving eventually rewarded by a chase of the second bird. As I think about it, it may be a good idea to carry the second bird in my coat for rewarding retrieves. Another way would simply be to ask him to whoa briefly before I release him to chase, then extending the duration of the whoa before he is allowed to chase.

Other Uses - Trash Breaking

Dogs like to chase "off game". Off game is rabbits, deer, cars, squirrels, squirrels driving cars and other dogs. I have seen other trainers online suggest using Premack to get this behavior under control. The owner can take the dog somewhere where a lot of vermin are known to reside. The dog sees and wants to chase. At first, the dog is asked to simply look at the owner first before being released to chase. Then the dog is expected to recall a few steps before being allowed to chase. Over time, the distance of the recall is increased.

Other Uses - Reinforce The Recall

Pointing dogs run big and have a tremendous prey drive. It is typically at a much higher level than the average retrieving breed. When working on a recall, a bird held in my coat would be a great reinforcer. I could call the dog back and release a bird which he can chase. This would be a bigger reinforcer than any piece of hot dog.

Other Uses - Reinforce The Retrieve

Many dogs are more interested in hunting than they are in fetching the downed bird. As I mentioned above, completing the entire hunting chain of events (point, release to retrieve, retrieve to hand) could be rewarded by finding more birds. In other words, you refuse to retrieve, then you don't get to hunt. You do retrieve, you get to hunt and can find a bird pretty quick. In a training situation, a bird could be located near the end of the retrieve so the dog gets to find another bird quickly after completing the retrieve. With my dog, the chronic chaser, retrieving means he gets to chase immediately. Not retrieving means we're done.

Other Uses - Jumping Up

Young Zeke (Llewellyn Setter I am training) is a great dog, but one behavior that is escaping him is to not jump up on people. What he really wants is to greet people face to face. With the help of some people who do not mind dog slobber, Zeke could be expected to whoa or sit first, then be rewarded with a good greeting of the human.

In summary, Premack's principle is a positive reinforcement technique that uses an activity or behavior as a reinforcer. For our gun dogs, many of the activities are much more highly motivated than treats or praise.

Dear reader: perhaps you have experience using Premack.  How have you used it?  How did it work for you?  We all would love to hear.

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