Go Sniff! The Greatest Reward Going (or Thank you, Dr. Premack!)

23 Apr

Question from a student :

My dog can get “stuck” sniffing when on a walk. Do I wait for her to quit so we can go together? She would sometimes rather sniff than get a treat. She never pulls forward but may dart to side to smell or won’t go forward.”

Here is what I recommend for this. Before she has any chance to get”hooked” on a scent, I would ask for a behavior (doesn’t matter what behavior), something she can easily do in that moment, when she does the behavior, then rush over to a spot of grass pointing excitedly at the ground while cueing “go sniff!”

Permission to sniff is the reinforcement (think of it as a reward), the “treat”,  following the click. Let her have a good 10 to 20-second sniffing extravaganza all the while you are moving with her to keep slack in the leash. When you see a lull in the sniffing, move closer to her to create more slack in the leash and call her name. Click the instant she responds to her name (even with only an eyebrow movement) and instantly zoom to another spot in the grass, pointing excitedly and cueing “go sniff”. Repeat being very aware to click the instant her head turns in response to her name and send her immediately off to sniff.

After a few times, you’ll see more attention on you and less desire to sniff. Start working on your loose leash walking at that point. Pick a duration or number of steps that is easily doable in that moment. When you meet that criterion, <click!>  followed by “go sniff”. From then on blend in click/treat (with a food treat) a few times, then click/go
sniff. Mix it up as randomly as you can. Make a BIG production of the “go sniff” game!

If you wait until she’s honed in on a scent and is already sniffing, you have missed out on using what she most wants as a reinforcer. By using what she wants to reinforce what you want, you have a very powerful reinforcer (Premack Principle!)

You mission is to cue her to “go sniff” before she ever goes off to do so on her own. Be sure to let her have some great long sniffing events before you call her back from time to time.

I have done this with Rosanne (my scenthound) in the big back yard. I use a short long line (about 12 feet). I tell her to “go sniff” and let her have at it. As soon as I see one tiny movement in my direction, I click, then tell her to “go sniff” in another location. The more I do this, the more interested she is in coming to me until finally, she would rather focus on me than sniff. That’s the power of Premack!


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