The Premack Principle and Impulse Control

By: Tyler Kent CPDT-KA

Impulse control is a problem for humans. Impulse control is a problem for dogs.

Do you ever find yourself sitting on the couch late at night? You have had dinner and brushed your teeth. You decide to watch cake boss. As images of delicious cake burn through your retinas, the little voice begins to speak. It starts off as a whisper. Within a few commercial breaks, it’s shouting like it’s at a Nickleback concert. Do you b-line for the cookies? Or do you let the feeling subside?

That is impulse control. Our prefrontal cortex helps us understand why eating late is bad. Yet, we find ourselves giving into those urges.  Dogs have a less developed prefrontal cortex.They don’t have the luxury of understanding the repercussions of their actions. They eat the cookie and sometimes the couch. They chase the squirrel into traffic. Fortunately for us and them, they have the ability to learn to control those urges.

We can begin to control our dog’s impulses with the help of the Premack Principle. The idea is to use what your dog wants as the reward for doing what you want. Human example: If your kid finishes all their vegetables, they get dessert. Dog example: If your dog sits, you throw the ball.

Sitting for Meals

Whenever you feed your dog a meal, make them sit until you give them the “ok” to eat. To start, fill the food bowl away from the area where your dog eats. Bring the bowl out and ask your dog to sit before you set it on the ground. Lower the food to the ground. If your dog stands, raise the food back up and ask them to sit again. Once they are calmly sitting in front of their food, release them with “ok” or “yes.”

As with most tasks, it will take as much patience on your part as it does for the dog. Their dinner is a high valued reward for them. Use each meal to your advantage and your dog will be in control of their hunger urge in no time.

Master this and move on to…

Sitting before going through doors

Letting dogs be dogs is great for their psyche, but it needs to be on your terms. I’m not telling you to walk through the door first. Make sure they sit and wait for the “ok” before going through the door. Practice this on leash or off. Practice this at your back door, front door, apartment door, or elevator. Practice this before letting them jump in or out of the car.

You are teaching your dog patience as well as looking to you for guidance in all situations. The relationship we have with our pup is symbiotic. You need to be the leader or they may make harmful and inappropriate decisions.  Like letting your 5-year old choose the menu for family dinner. Which is fine if you like gummy bear mac-and-cheese.

When you have this one down move on to the more advanced…

Sitting before greeting a new dog

If your dog is friendly, use their love for other dogs as a reward. When another dog approaches, ask your pooch to sit next to you. When they are calm, release them to go meet the other dog. By doing this, you are using the other dog as the reward for sitting.

Chances are, this exercise will be harder than I made it sound. Other dogs become a high valued reward if your dog doesn’t see them often. It will help to have dog treats with you. Post up in one place and have your dog sit while dogs go by. Reward them with the treats for calm behavior. After a few minutes release them. Let them make some friends, then try it again.

A final exercise for fun…

Sitting before peeing

Same rules apply when you teach your dog how to ask to go to the bathroom. Ask your dog to sit before they charge towards the object they want to pee on. If you decide that a particular object is a proper place for a dog to pee, say “ok.” Let the peeing reward the sitting. This is more useful with male dogs who tend to want to pee on everything.To acquire the behavior, do it the same way every time.

Final Thoughts

Many undesired behaviors come from a lack of impulse control. Aggression, barking, and anxiety all stem from unchecked urges. In order to get a handle on the more tricky behavioral modification, you must first work on communication. The above exercises will help with that. They teach your dog to wait for your command, and good things come from being patient. Remember, it is essential that YOU are the one that releases them.

It is only fair to teach your dog exactly what you want from them. Give them the tools to ask you for permission. In doing so, you begin to develop a language together. If anything, you won’t look crazy talking to your dog if they respond.

One Commment

  1. Anonymous says:

    So Great!!

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