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How to Use the Premack Principle in Dog Training

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."

Learn about Premack's Principle to help train your dog.

Learn about Premack's Principle to help train your dog.

Using the Premack Principle to Lower Dog Arousal

What is the Premack Principle, and how does it relate to dog training? Not many dog owners may be aware of Professor David Premack's existence, but they can thank him for his principle that comes in 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 us gain a better insight into 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.

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 everyday 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 is 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 afterward, 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.

Your dog will learn to take cues from how taut or loose their leash is.

Your dog will learn to take cues from how taut or loose their leash is.

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!

What Does Your Dog Love?

Dogs may love to go play with their favorite playmate, swim in the pond, herd sheep, get groomed, play tug, 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 counterproductive 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!

Is There Anything That Makes Your Dog Anxious?

Also, be careful in using Premack if your dog is anxious in certain situations, or you may shoot yourself in the foot. For instance, imagine asking your dog to sit to go out in the yard and your dog is sometimes fearful in the yard due to the neighbor's dog being out. If this situation presents often enough, you risk poisoning your sit cue because your dog may learn the opposite of what you are trying to accomplish. Your dog may learn that sitting leads to something negative rather than positive.

Once you know your dog's emotions and what drives your dog, you can implement the principles. For instance, let's say that Buddy loves to go on walks but is super wiggly and jumpy when it's time to put on the leash. Try to ask him to sit and the moment he complies, the leash magically snaps on and you head out of the door.

Too hyper to focus on sitting? Practice these exercises for dogs too excited upon seeing the leash. 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.

Give Your Dog Time to Learn to Chill

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. Give her some time to learn to chill; this is important for hyper dogs. Your dog sits, you take the leash off, and your dog has earned the privilege of a cool bath.

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, his eagerness to go may override the discomfort and this behavior will be difficult to extinguish over time.

Not to mention, that excitement may spill into behaviors that are chained to going to the lake, so don't be surprised if your dog starts acting hyper the moment he is in the car going to the lake, and possibly even at home when he sees you put on those shoes you always wear to go there. Yes, dogs can be as smart as that!

Your dog will earn a well-deserved reward with this method of training.

Your dog will earn a well-deserved reward with this method of training.

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, 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. Yes, his eyes may be focused on the lake, maybe he's even trembling with anticipation, but after some practice, he should be calmer if you give your dog some time to chill (maybe walk him a bit before heading there directly)

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 of 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 listen, 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 of the car.
  • Ask your dog for a sit before tossing a ball.
  • 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 a front-attachment harness like the Easy Walk harness. It'll make your life much easier!
  • Ask your dog to sit or heel before sending him off to sniff in an area.
  • 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.

This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.

© 2011 Adrienne Farricelli


Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 04, 2019:

Lea Smith, I use a kissy, smacking sound with my mouth to get my dog to look into my eyes on walks. It works beautifully.

Eiddwen from Wales on September 14, 2011:

Another brillaint hub and thanks for sharing.

Lea Smith on August 14, 2011:

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.

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on August 13, 2011:

I'll have to work on doing this.

mkvealsh on August 13, 2011:

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!