Premack’s Principle

What is the Premack Principle, Anyway?
If you’re at all interested in behavior modification, you’ve heard of David Premack. He is a psychologist who came up with the relationship between desirable and undesirable behaviors.

Desirable – or high probability – behaviors are those behaviors which the animal wishes to do when given the choice. Undesirable – or low probability – behaviors are those behaviors which, given the choice, the animal seldom, if ever, does.

Premack’s Principle states an animal will perform an undesired behavior in order to engage in a desirable behavior. When a high probability behavior is contingent upon the performance of a low probability behavior, the outcome is the increased frequency of the low probability behavior.

While this might sound hard to enforce, consider the mother who tells her child, “you aren’t allowed to go outside and play until you clean your room.” Cleaning her room is not a preferred behavior for the child, yet since she is extremely motivated to play outside, she will perform the low probability behavior for her “reward”: the high probability, or preferred, behavior.

Training Dogs Using Premack’s Theory
In relation to dog training, Premack’s Principle tells us we can use our dog’s most desired activities as reinforcers for good behavior in operant conditioning. Often, trainers will become frustrated when their dogs lose interest during a training session because they’d rather sniff the floor, play with another dog, chew their favorite toy, etc.

That’s okay! You can use these tendencies to achieve the behavior you want. For example, if your dog would rather fetch a ball, you can use it as a reinforcer during training. If you’re working on “sit” with your dog, wait until she sits, then release her as you’re throwing the ball. Of course, this works best with dogs who are so motivated to play fetch they always bring the ball (or stick, favorite toy, etc.) back to you every time! Mostly, with dogs that enjoy this activity, they understand the principle: I chase the ball, bring it back and the human throws it so I can chase it again!

Or, if your dog would rather sniff around than receive some other form of treat during a training session, wait until your dog performs the behavior you wish, and then let him sniff as his reward! After a few seconds of sniff-time, calmly say “let’s go,” or get your dog’s attention back on you and start over.

I know a dog trainer who used her male dog's extreme desire to mark everything as reinforcement. She taught him to heel at perfect attention merely by waiting for him to perform desired behavior and then rewarding him with allowing him to scent mark. Voilà! Premack's Principle at work.

Premack theory works hand in hand with intermittent reinforcement, allowing you to wean your dog away from “treats” as rewards. Not only that, it allows you to utilize your everyday environment to train your dog. An important thing to always keep in mind is "what motivates my dog the most right now?" If the Premack Principle is used correctly, you’ll quickly have a dog which is always looking for ways to “have fun” by offering you obedient behavior!


volito said…
Awesome! explanation!thx

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