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The Premack Principle: Learn How to Motivate Your Dog

Behavior problems are the primary reason dogs are relinquished to shelters.

Digging, chewing, barking, and squirrel chasing are actions that come naturally to most dogs, but remain frustrating for humans. How can owners encourage a well-mannered pet while still allowing their dogs to be dogs?

The answer lies with the Premack Principle.

The Premack Principle is a behavior-reinforcement theory originally identified by psychologist David Premack in 1965. According to this principle, high-frequency behavior (activities we really want to do), can be used to reinforce low-frequency behavior (activities we don’t enjoy doing, or don’t do often). For example, some parents may allow their children to engage in a favorite activity, like playing video games, as a reward for completing a task they would prefer not to do, such as washing dishes.

In dog training, this means using your dog’s favorite activities, like playing fetch or sniffing a tree, to reinforce the behaviors you want him to do, such as sitting and heeling. “Essentially . . . a behavior the dog doesn’t really like doing is followed by something the dog loves to do,” says veterinarian and animal behaviorist Dr. Ian Dunbar.

“And eventually he will love to do what previously, he didn’t like doing.”

While treats and praise are common ways to reward a dog, they may not be the things that Rover likes best. “What I do is make it a lot more exciting for the dog. So if we take the example of lying down—if the dog lies down, I don’t just follow that with praise or a treat, I follow it with every enjoyable activity that the dog likes,” Dr. Dunbar says.

“We go to the park. I say ‘down’ and let the dog off leash. I say ‘down,’ and then I throw the tennis ball. At home, I say ‘down,’ and then I say to the dog ‘on the couch for snuggles.’ I say ‘down,’ and then I give the dog tummy rubs. So now, when I say ‘down,’ the dog lies down instantly. Because in effect, that’s now the dog’s most favorite activity because it’s usually followed by all of the other fun activities the dog has.”

A WIN-WIN SITUATION

Premack’s Principle is effective in dog training because it’s a win-win proposition—both humans and dogs get exactly what they want.

“[Owners] get stuck in a loop where getting the dog to obey them often means a losing situation for their dog,” says Sarah Owings, KPA CTP, owner of Bridges Dog Training in Los Angeles. “So the dog comes when called and doesn’t get to play anymore. Or your dog comes when called and gets put in the crate.”

Instead of ending the fun when the command is followed, with the Premack Principle the dog learns that obeying the instruction triggers the enjoyable activity.

“An example would be: you ask a dog to come when called. You might still reward with food, but if you can release the dog back to the play, or even back to chasing a squirrel if it’s safe, you’ve doubled up your reinforcer exponentially, because that’s what the animal really wanted to do,” she says.

When used properly, the Premack Principle can strengthen your relationship with your dog. You become a team.

Dr. Dunbar equates it to a coach encouraging an athlete. “Rather than forcing them, which makes the whole thing unpleasant, so a lot of dogs are less likely to do it . . . we motivate the dog. It’s just like I’m the coach and the dog is the player. I say ‘down,’ and he says ‘Good play, coach. That’s my favorite,’” Dr. Dunbar explains.

TURN BAD BEHAVIORS INTO GOOD ONES

An exciting aspect of working with the Premack Principle is that you can use the canine behaviors often labeled as “bad” in a controlled way to motivate the dog to behave acceptably.

“The problem is a high-frequency behavior. That’s really what a behavior problem is,” Dr. Dunbar says. “Barking, pulling on leash, jumping up, hyperactivity, chasing—these are the things the dog wants to do. Therefore, to try and stop them is futile. What we have to do is embrace these behaviors, and they become the Premack rewards for what we want.”

For example, Dr. Dunbar’s French bulldog, Hugo, loved pulling on his leash. Following the Premack Principle, the high-frequency activity became the reward for appropriate behavior. “He loved pulling on leash, ever since he was a puppy. No idea why, he just loved it. And so I said, ‘Here’s the deal, Hugo. If you sit, heel for one step, and sit again, I will say pull.’ And then I increased it to ‘sit, two steps, sit.’ Then three steps, five steps, 10 steps, 20 steps. Before you knew it, I had the best little heeling dog I’ve ever had in my life . . . he loved heeling. Why? Because I reinforced it with the Premack Principle by following heeling on a loose leash, with pulling on leash.”

With Premack, the dog gets a chance to do what he wants to do most, but the owner controls when and where. “So now, what was a behavior problem we didn’t want, the high-frequency behavior for the dog, now becomes one of the biggest rewards in training, but it’s in control. It’s still a high-frequency behavior, but [we] cue it. And that’s the difference,” Dr. Dunbar says.

PUT PREMACK INTO ACTION

The key to using the Premack Principle effectively in training is noticing what your dog is most interested in at that particular moment.

What does he want to do right now—sniff a tree, chase a squirrel, fetch a ball or play with another pooch? Note that the value of an activity to your dog can change. What interests him most in the home, such as a chew toy or a food treat, may not be as exciting to him on a walk or at the dog park.

“The world is full of reinforcers, from the tiniest thing. What is your dog telling you that he wants right now?” Owings asks.

You should see results fairly quickly when incorporating the Premack Principle into your training repertoire. “The number one gauge to know if it’s working is if your [low-frequency] behaviors get stronger,” Owings says. “Within weeks, it should get much easier.”

Keep in mind that only fun, safe activities should be used as behavior rewards. “You want to make sure the behavior is something the dog is really enjoying doing, not doing it out of fear or aggression,” she says.

A simple way to put the Premack Principle into practice is by working on basic commands during a play session. Start in a fenced-in area where your dog can safely be off leash, such as your backyard. Dr. Dunbar suggests calling the dog, then having him sit while taking hold of his collar.

“We give a piece of kibble, then we say ‘go play.’ And that’s what you do throughout the play session: Come here, sit, take the collar, go play. Sitting and remaining still while your collar is taken, these are low-frequency behaviors—the ones the dog doesn’t want to do, that the owner wants him to do—followed by ‘go play.’ So the more you interrupt the play session, the more times you can pair the low-frequency behaviors—come here, sit and have your collar grabbed—with the high-frequency behavior ‘go play.’ Now you have a dog that loves to come when called,” he explains.

“Most owners want to let their dogs have a good time and do wonderful things,” Dr. Dunbar says. “All they have to do is have the dog sit or lie down before them. Then they have a very controllable dog.” For more information, visit dogstardaily.com to download two free eBooks written by Dr. Dunbar on canine behavioral development.


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