What is the Premack Principle and how can it help me?

The Premack Principle is one that all dog trainers are generally familiar with, and that some very savvy dog owner’s also know. So, what is it and how can it help you?

The Premack Principle was discussed in a study by David Premack who discussed the principle in a paper of a study on Cebus Monkeys. The Premack Principle states that a less desirable behaviour can be reinforced by providing access to a highly desirable behaviour.

We often utilize the Premack Principle without even knowing. We will tell kids “if you eat your veggies, you’ll get dessert”, or tell ourselves “if I finish this report, I’ll let myself take a 15 minute break”. The less desirable behaviour in this case is eating vegetables and finishing the report, the desirable behaviour is eating dessert and taking a break. The desirable behaviours essentially become rewards for completing something the learner didn’t want to do as much.

The applications in dog training are immense and can even help us work with some challenging behaviours. We often employ the Premack Principle to teach an automatic stay at an open door. We utilize our dog’s high desire to be outside, as a reward for staying put at the open door. The dog then gets to out of the door on cue, and gets the highly desired behaviour.

We can even use it with working on challenging issues such unwanted chasing behaviour. We can do appropriate set ups where we work on having the dog engage with us, instead of chasing something, and (if safe), we can then reward the dog with a short chase (ideally a stuffed animal pulled on a string). Thus reinforcing the behaviour of focusing on us, with the actual problem behaviour! It may seem counter intuitive to utilize an undesired behaviour, but when we can set things up safely, this can be a powerful reinforcer for our dogs.

There concludes my mini lesson on the Premack Principle. I hope you’ve learned something and you consider the application with your dog and even the people in your life! I use this one on myself all of the time and it works very well.

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