The smallest behaviors, Boogie & Squirrels.

May 15, 2012 at 6:05 pm 7 comments

Following on from the previous “Premack” guest post, and thinking about this illustration that I did ages ago…

There’s just one problem with the way I visualized Premack in this Boogie-Squirrel scenario…. The truth is, when your dog doesn’t even know that you exist, he is not going to suddenly turn around and check in with you or respond to the sound of his name.

Example: Squirrel Fixation video.

That video was taken a couple of years ago – I used to CARRY him away from the tree because there was no other way to get him to move. I don’t believe that Boogie was consciously “blowing me off”.  When extremely magnetized by a squirrel, I don’t think he even hears me or registers that any other sights, sounds or smells exists. He is in another zone.

Suzanne Clothier writes:

In a laboratory experiment, a cat was wired with electrodes that helped researchers see when an audible signal was received by the brain. When a tone was played, the cat’s brain responded with a blip. Tone, blip; tone, blip. Then researchers put a mouse just outside the cat’s cage where the cat could see it but not reach it. They were curious to see how the brain processed the competing stimuli of mouse and tone. Their theory was that the brain would register the tone but that the cat would consciously disregard this stimulus in favor of the mouse. To their surprise, when the cat was completely focused on the mouse, the brain did not register the tone at all—it was as if the tone had ceased to exist within the cat’s perception of his world.


…we routinely ignore our dogs when they tell us that they are busy. I am not saying that you should stand there helplessly waiting until your dog decides he is finished watching squirrels or whatever. I am saying that you need to respect the reality that your direction or command or request may not even have been perceived. Our response to being ignored should not be the same as our response to not being heard. In order to communicate to the dog what you would have him understand, you have to find a way past his focus on something else and turn it back to you. And at a very fundamental level, the dog’s disengagement from you speaks to a quality of connection that may need some work. But using force to ask for a dog’s attention (unless it is a matter of life and death) is just as insane as slapping someone upside the head because he did not respond to you while his focus was elsewhere.

One day by accident, I found a very successful way to call Boogie’s attention away from squirrels and back to me. I have used this method every single time since and it has worked like a charm.

When Boogie stares at a squirrel, I say nothing and pay very close attention to his face.

The trick is to wait for the teeny tiniest natural movement or break in concentration: an eye-blink, an ear-flicker or a tiny shift of his head. It’s a bit like in BAT: wait for a polite signal or loosening up of body language. When I see any tiny sign of movement on his face, I seize the moment and I call his name. “Boogie!” This is the moment that Boogie can actually hear so he turns his head to look at me.

As soon as I get eye contact, I mark “YES!” or “Thank you!”

He moves away from the tree, I give him a treat, and then we return to the tree to look at the squirrel.  Boogie takes a look at the tree (squirrel has disappeared by now) then moves away, sniffs the ground, and we continue walking. I suppose it’s not strictly Premack because I am using food, but I have found that when Boogie’s concentration breaks, he is no longer magnetized by the squirrel and I am able to reinforce his attention to me and still use “looking at the squirrel” as a functional reward.

These days, when Boogie sees a squirrel, he is more easily able to “let go”, redirect to me sooner, and move along. 

Now if I could only apply these principles to my own fixations and bad habits. 🙂

Entry filed under: Training.

Premack Pearls – by Lynn Martin Station Training. It’s not just for sea lions! – by Helix Fairweather

7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Helix Fairweather  |  May 15, 2012 at 7:32 pm

    Hi Lili!

    Really great observation you made about watching for the tiniest sign that Boogie is aware of you! Food can be a great Premack reward. If there is a high probability your dog will eat the food, then that can be used to reinforce a low probability behavior (turning away from the squirrel).

    With Boogie and the squirrel, try this next time – I would love to hear how it goes for you – wait for the sign as you already do, click/treat and *immediately* cue him to look for the squirrel again. (or skip the treat or skip both the click and the treat).

    Make this immediate so there’s still some “squirrel” for him to want to check out. Let him look for, hunt for, stand on the tree and whine for, the squirrel. Find that moment when he is aware of you, call his name and, once he turns to you, send him right back to the squirrel (or click/treat/then send or click/then send).

    After repeating this cycle 4 or 5 times, what you can expect to observe is a diminished desire to go back looking for the squirrel. It’s really cool to follow this through to see your dog actually choose to pay attention to you over the temptation of a squirrel!

    Sound familiar? Control Unleashed’s Look At That is a Premack game.

    You can also mix things up – sometimes it’s right back to the squirrel, sometimes it’s click/treat, sometimes it’s “touch” (hand target)/click/treat back to the squirrel). By using what the dog really wants, the behaviors you really want become stronger. Try it with a few quick repetitions so you can see that point of interest in squirrel goes down, interest in you goes up!

    Fun stuff!

    Helix Fairweather

    • 2. lili  |  May 15, 2012 at 7:50 pm

      “Make this immediate so there’s still some “squirrel” for him to want to check out.” – That’s a really good point, Helix. I am already noticing a diminished desire to go back to the squirrel, but I can see that rewarding him immediately would help strengthen his recall. Thank you!

  • 3. Kristine  |  May 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    Thanks for this great information! I actually feel a lot better knowing my dog may not be blowing me off, but more that she can’t even hear me when she is fixated on something. It makes a lof of sense. Unfortunately, when the thing she is fixated on is someone else’s treat bag, it makes it very hard to stop her before it’s too late. I can’t really just wait for her to be ready to listen. But perhaps this is where that hard proofing work comes in.

    • 4. lili  |  May 15, 2012 at 7:52 pm

      Hi Kristine,
      Yes, it helps that I have already done a lot of recall ‘Name Game’ training with Boogie when there are no distractions. I too, used to think that he was ignoring me on purpose and not that he can’t actually hear me…

  • 5. Grisha Stewart  |  May 15, 2012 at 8:47 pm

    Lili, that was really well written. You’ve got great observational skills. When a dog starts to un-fixate, it’s like when your phone starts to catch a wifi signal – he’s just about ready to perceive the rest of the world. You’re going to end up as a trainer someday… 🙂

    • 6. lili  |  May 15, 2012 at 9:02 pm

      Thanks, Grisha! I love training Boogie but I am probably not so good dealing with humans so not sure if I’d make a good dog trainer 🙂

  • […] Great piece about Boogie and his love for squirrels (sound like a dog you know?!) and a wonderful application of Premack’s Principle: The Smallest Behaviours […]


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