Maverick, my puppy, went to the beach with me not too long ago. While there, he learned that I didn’t exist and that he shouldn’t pay attention to me. How in the world did he learn that? Let me tell you a story…

My friend Mindy, her Border Collie Zander, Maverick, and I went to the beach one morning. It was the first time for both of our puppies. We got to the beach and I kept Maverick on a long line (a super long leash) because I fully expected that he would NOT listen to me in that type of distracting situation. In my treat bag I had freshly cooked beef liver, steak, and cheese. When we got to the water, he started to swim and chase the ball. All of a sudden, he took off toward another dog.

Let me stop the story here to tell you that dogs, water, and people are more reinforcing to Maverick than any food or toy. Yes, he is a Lab, I am certain, but food is not his most powerful motivator. I reeled in the 40 foot long line, feeling confident that I could call him back in, reward him for his obedience, and then let him go greet the person. Well … that is not exactly what happened. He just kept on going and the long line burned into my thumb, taking my skin and a couple layers of flesh with it. I let go as I saw myself face planting in the sand. My thumb was bleeding and my dog was a yellow speck on the beach — what seemed like a mile away. I turned to look at my friend whose dog was in front of her staring at a ball that she was holding. I washed my thumb in salt water (ouch!) and took off after my dog.

The rest of the 1 ½ hours at the beach went a lot like that — Mindy standing in one spot with her ball and her dog as I ran around the beach after my dog. He wouldn’t respond to me at all. He just ignored all of the great food and all of the cues that I had taught him. To add insult to injury, I had a pack of dogs following me because of all of the food that I had in my treat pouch, but my dog was running wild. At one point, when I had caught him yet again and brought him back to our spot, Mindy looked at me, covered in sweat on a comfortable morning, and said, "Who's getting more exercise, you or him?"

When we left the beach, I wasn’t disappointed in Maverick. It is my job to train him and prepare him for situations like this. On that day, I had trained him alright. I had taught him to ignore me completely because there were lots of other things out there that were a lot more rewarding than me. I hadn’t done what I was supposed to do, so I was the one who deserved the punishment. Maybe I should have hit myself with a rolled up newspaper?

I know my limitations. I know that Maverick will not be as well trained as I would like because of my schedule. I accept that and it doesn’t bother me. He is trained well enough and is very well socialized. So, with that in mind, I vowed not to go back to the beach. My dog can swim in my pool and he gets to play with other dogs on a regular basis. The beach is simply an opportunity for him to learn the wrong thing from me. So I decided to avoid that situation until I had time to train for it.

A couple of weeks later, I got an e-mail that my friends were headed back to the beach. Maverick and I accepted their invitation, but not without making a plan first. That is where Premack comes in. David Premack was a researcher in the 50s and 60s. He put a bunch of kids in a room and gave them access to candy and pinball machines. He found that some kids liked pinball machines more than candy and vice versa. So far, not mind blowing. Then he did a series of experiments to see if the less desirable activity (eating, for example) would be performed if the child could gain access to the more desirable activity (pinball machines, for example). What he found was that the activity that was less desirable would be performed in order to get access to the more desirable activity. Basically, the goal of gaining access to the pinball machine reinforces or rewards the eating behavior so the eating behavior increases over time. Cool stuff right? Right!

What that means is that Maverick should perform a less desirable activity, such as sitting, in order to gain access to a more desirable activity, such as playing with other dogs. All that I have to do is convince him that he won’t be able to play with the other dogs if he doesn’t sit. In other words, the play is contingent upon the sitting behavior. If I could swing that, he would perform the sitting behavior more and more frequently (because it was being rewarded by the playing behavior) when he saw dogs. This would allow me to gain control over him on the beach. That was my plan.

I came prepared with two balls and treats, but no long line! I watched the beach closely. When I saw a dog coming, I quickly put the leash on and we walked in a controlled walk (while rewarding with food) down the beach. Then, when I got close enough for him to see the dog, I asked him to sit. When he did, I released him with "go play." I repeated this sequence as many times as possible. Yes, there were times when he ran toward other dogs without my seeing the other dog first, but they were rare because I was on my game.

He started to offer the sit behavior more and more frequently over the hour that we were there. It was easier to get him to sit in distracting situations and he was more likely to offer it when he saw a dog. He was clearly 50 percent better than the last time.

I will continue to go to the beach and practice this behavior pattern, and I predict that Maverick will learn to sit in order to play with other dogs on the beach, which will be more fun for everyone. 

Lisa Radosta

Image: Mat Hayward / via Shutterstock