How to Use the Premack Principle in Dog Training

Updated on October 24, 2016

Using The Premack Principle to Lower Dog Arousal

What is the Premack Principle and how does it realty to dog training? Not many dog owners may be aware of Professor David Premack's existence but many dog trainers are because his principle comes handy in training dogs. Just as Isaac Pavlov, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, and Edward Thorndike have helped countless humans and canines with their interesting research and psychological findings, David Premack deserves a place of honor when it comes to understanding how dogs learn and how to effectively train even the most stubborn dogs.

His interesting studies involving mostly primates helped gain a better insight on reinforcement training and its correlated dynamics. After extensively studying Cebus Monkeys, Professor Premack came to the conclusion that ''the more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors''. This principle was named in his honor, ''Premack's principle''.

Confused? To put it simply, he discovered that animals or people are willing to perform a less desirable activity to get at the more desirable activity. In every day living, parents may unknowingly use the Premack principle many times when they tell their children: ''You have to finish your homework first if you want to go to the game'' or ''You have to eat your broccoli if you want a slice of cake''. This is why the Premack principle is often also called 'Grandma's law".

In the above scenarios, engaging in desired behaviors are contingent upon engaging in less desired behaviors, therefore children appear to be more likely to engage in the undesired behaviors to simply get to the desired ones. Children, therefore, readily clean their rooms if they know they have the promise of watching T.V. right afterwards or they gulp down broccoli in anticipation of a dish of ice cream . The same principle can be used in dogs, and we will take a look at this in the next paragraph.

How to Use Premack's Principle to Train Your Dog

Now, you will have to figure out things your dog loves to do and add them to the equation. Just as kids love to have dessert, go to pajama parties, or watch their favorite cartoons on T.V. your dog will have its favorite list of favorite things to do. Each dog is an individual so you will have to put yourself in your dog's mind and think carefully. It is not always about eating food!

Dogs may love to go play with their favorite playmate, swim in the pond, herd sheep, get groomed, play tug, chase ducks, fetch a Frisbee, sniff in the yard or go on a car ride. Exclude obviously all the things dogs may love to do that can be counter-productive or behaviors you are trying to extinguish such as chasing cats, eating poop, stealing socks, chewing socks, or raiding the trash. You do not want to encourage bad behaviors!

Once you know what drives your dog, you need to implement a less desirable behavior. For instance, let's say that Buddy loves to play with his friend at the dog park, but literally drags you there eager to go play. Stop allowing him to drag you. Instead, try to ask him or a sit and the moment he complies, the leash magically comes off. Too concentrated on the other dog? Turn around. Put him in the car and try again after a few minutes later. Work in small steps and practice asking for a sit at home with little distractions and work from there in more and more distracting environments.

Does Misty love to swim in the pond? Ask for a sit before allowing her to cool off in the water. Too focused on the sparkling water to listen to your command? Then turn around and try a few minutes later. Dog sits, you take the leash off and your dog has earned the privilege of a cool bath. No cooperation? Try again.

Consider this: if you allow your dog to drag you to the lake, the leash pulling will be associated with going to the lake. This means your dog will engage more and more in leash pulling and even though it may be uncomfortable for your dog to feel the collar tighten and make him gasp, he's eagerness to go may override the discomfort and this behavior will be difficult to extinguish over time.

Benefits of The Premack Principle

Many dogs who are hyper and appear to lack attention and the ability to focus, in reality have great attention and focus, but it's just channeled wrong. So the benefit of the Premack principle is that you offer an alternate behavior and create a positive bond.

If you think about it, when your dog sees another dog, or wants to go play in the lake, you are blocking your dog from doing what he really wants to do. With the Premack Principle, instead you offer the key that unlocks the world of things your dog loves to do, while rewarding calmer behaviors!

But the best part of the Premack principle is that it comes with a bonus. After repetition, your dog will start to love the activity that leads to the wanted behavior. So if your dog learns to associate sitting with being allowed to go jump in the lake, the dog will be eager to do the sit, even automatically at times. If your dog learns that eye contact brings you to snap off the leash so he can go play, he will be more eager than ever to give you eye contact, even in other circumstances. So, while in the beginning, more probable behaviors were used to reinforce less probable behaviors, now the less probable behaviors have become worthy at the same levels as the more probable behaviors.

Need some examples on how you can apply the Premack Principle in Dog Training? Here are some, but obviously you'll need to evaluate what your dog really likes to do to make it work. What do all of these have in common? They encourage calmer behaviors and increase your dog's level of impulse control. If your dog is the type that gets easily frustrated when he doesn't get what he wants or gets so focused at times he doesn't seem to listent, the Premack Principle can help a whole lot.

  • Ask your dog for a sit/stay or lie down/stay before feeding him the kibble. Once your dog is sitting or lying down nicely, put the food bowl down and tell him "go!" If your dog breaks the stay, lift the food bowl and then try again.
  • Ask your dog a sit/stay before opening the door. Open the door slightly. If she breaks the sit/stay, close the door, if she does sit/stay nicely, open it more and invite her out.
  • Ask your dog for a sit/stay before allowed in and out the car.
  • Ask your dog to walk in heel position before you start walking. If your dog pulls and you walk you'll encourage pulling. Move forward only when your dog is next to you. If your dog pulls a lot, invest in front-attachment harness like the Easy Walk harness. It'll make your life much easier!
  • Play the "Chill Out Game". Invented by trainer Dee Ganley, this method works great for lowering arousal. As Dee explains: "this game will help you install an "on/off" switch. Basically, you'll start by getting your dog excited with a toy or other form of play. In the middle of the game, when your dog is aroused, freeze and ask your dog to sit or lie down. Once your dog sits, immediately reward the sit by re-engaging in the game. The calm behavior is reinforced by play.
  • Open the crate only when your dog is quiet. If you open it when he's whining, you'll reinforce the whining. Calm behaviors are rewarded and associated with being let out.

Alexadry, All Rights Reserved, do not copy.

Questions & Answers


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      • Eiddwen profile image

        Eiddwen 6 years ago from Wales

        Another brillaint hub and thanks for sharing.

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 6 years ago from USA

        I use a conditioned noise I make with my mouth. I notive

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 6 years ago from USA

        I use a conditioned noise I make with my mouth. I notive

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 6 years ago from USA

        I use a conditioned noise I make with my mouth. I notive

      • alexadry profile image

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 6 years ago from USA

        I use a conditioned noise I make with my mouth. I notive

      • Lea^ profile image

        Lea Smith 6 years ago

        I am curious to know what "command" you use to get your dogs to make eye contact. We use look or watch. Great article! I will definitely read your other Hubs.

      • dahoglund profile image

        Don A. Hoglund 6 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

        I'll have to work on doing this.

      • mkvealsh profile image

        mkvealsh 6 years ago

        Really great ideas. When we put the leash on our dogs to go out, we make them sit so they won't jump on us. Now when they see the leashes, they run to the rug and sit without being told. So, I guess this works!