The Premack Principle

The Premack Principle asserts that more probable behaviors can be used to reinforce less probable behaviors. Essentially, this means that we can get our dogs...


The Premack Principle asserts that more probable behaviors can be used to reinforce less probable behaviors. Essentially, this means that we can get our dogs to do stuff that we want (and virtually everything we want dogs to do, from sit stays to heeling, is “less probable behavior” in dogland) by giving them what they want (the “more probable behavior” category generally involves everything dogs like to do, from chasing squirrels to sniffing another dog’s butt or eating or rolling in poop and long-since dead creatures).

At the seminar this weekend, Kathy provided us with a professor’s sample ethogram for his own behavior. Checking email, taking a nap, and eating a snack were all more probable behaviors for him. He did them frequently. Not all of these more probable behaviors are positive reinforcers. While the nap and snack are certainly positive reinforcers, checking email is often negatively reinforcing – we do it because we can then check it off our “to do” list. It’s the relief of having it done that reinforces us.

On the good professor’s list of less probable behavior were household chores, grading papers, and curriculum development. Even though checking email is a negative reinforcer it could very easily be used to reinforce cleaning the gutters on the house.

While I am a big advocate of Premack, Kathy taught me this weekend that I didn’t use it nearly as frequently or as effectively as I could or should.

I decided to look carefully at what would incorporate Mokie and Monte’s “more probable behavior” lists. Mokie’s would likely look like this:

  • chasing prey
  • swimming
  • playing tug with a stick
  • chewing a stick
  • sniffing
  • scratching at the ground with her back legs after pottying
  • jumping up on people
  • jumping in general
  • eating
  • going outside
  • playing with a favorite doggy friend
  • greeting a familiar and friendly human friend
  • having her harness removed
  • ending a grooming session
  • having her leash removed
  • playing with a toy
  • fresh water bowl

Cuba’s list may look like this:

  • chasing a toad or bug
  • playing with a kitty
  • getting a drink (he’s a thirsty little puppy!)
  • digging in the dirt
  • meeting a new dog
  • meeting a new person
  • running
  • biting on his leash
  • playing with a toy
  • chewing on plants
  • having his harness removed
  • going for a walk
  • chewing a stick
  • entering the classroom
  • sniffing another dog’s butt

Notice that these are not ordered sequentially. I did this intentionally, because reinforcement values are dynamic. While for Mokie, chasing a squirrel is virtually always number one on the reinforcement list, most of them shift in importance according to context. What’s on your “most probable behaviors list?” Mine includes time spent with my husband, training opportunities with my dogs, turning off the laptop and/or cell phone, crossing email off my to do list, having a glass of wine, making and crossing things off lists, clean sheets on the bed, a chapter of a good book, camping/hiking/swimming, attending training seminars, and downloading a new song for my iPod.

While I wanted to leave the seminar yesterday and immediately start training, I knew that my brain was too tired and that I’d probably make poor training decisions – sloppy mechanics, poorly timed clicks or reinforcement deliveries, etc. Today, I hope to reward myself with a little dog training time now that my brain is much “fresher” and has had some time to process everything from this weekend’s seminar.

I did use Premack this morning to reinforce Cuba for going potty outside. Trust me, it nearly killed me to reward my sparkly white, newly bathed Saint Bernard puppy’s appropriate toileting behavior with a chance to dig in a dirt hole that has captivated his attention. But I think the essence of using Premack effectively is always watching and listening to your dog – what does she or he want most right now? To sniff a bush? Pee on a fence post? To begin a training session? To take a nap on her bed?

When training a new behavior, we frequently use food rewards because they are easy to manipulate, quick to deliver and consume, thus allowing us to achieve a high rate of reinforcement, speeding the acquisition of new behavior. But often, life rewards trump food rewards in a number of different contexts.

Remember yesterday’s entry and our friend who could not get her dog to sit for kibble, hot dogs, and eventually steak at the dog park? Maybe at the dog park, her dog doesn’t want food, he wants to play. He wants to sniff another dog’s butt, help Dakota the Lab dig a hole halfway to China, run as fast as he can, learn herding from a Corgi. You may find these things to be insurmountable distractions. Your dog finds them to be the strongest reinforcement in that environment and they are like a perfectly ripe plum on a tree, waiting to be picked and incorporated into your reinforcement tool bag. Pick those plums!

Really, what is at the essence of the Premack Principle is immediacy. If you were not interfering or interacting with your dog and she were left to her own designs, what would she choose to do in that environment, in that exact instant?

Pet owners are often told they must be the most interesting thing in their dog’s environment. I think this is very unrealistic and somehow puts the dog’s desires and those of the owner at odds – it is almost combative, like a war. You vs. The Environment. But sometimes the environment will be more exciting. Part of it is related to deprivation – your dog gets to see and be with you for many hours every day. How often does he get to spend squirrel chasing? Butt sniffing? Digging holes? Fetching sticks? Running off lead? Chances are, not many. Hey, we’re all busy people, I get that.

We reinforce with food frequently because it’s easy, but that does not mean it’s the most powerful reinforcement we have available to us in any given circumstance. Sometimes Premack looks silly. Thankfully, I’m staying at a beautiful cottage in the middle of 180 wooded acres intersected by a lovely stream. I would have felt pretty embarrassed, in the front yard of my suburban dwelling, yelling “YAY!” while running and clapping my hands to go dig in the dirt with Cuba. But I’d do it. Good behavior is important to me, and if I can make Mokie and Cuba’s access to the things that are important to them contingent upon good behavior, we are no longer opposing each other but thriving together as a training team.

And now, I’m going to reward myself for finishing this article by going to the creek with Mokie and Cuba. While we’re down there, I think I’ll do a training session or two with each of them using only life rewards.

If you like, share your dog’s list of “most probable behaviors” in the comments, I’d love to read them!

1 thought on “The Premack Principle”

  1. Pingback: 4 Tips For Using Incentives to Train Your Dog – Flap Daddy | A UK Parenting Blog – Flap Daddy | A UK Parenting Blog

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