What’s Premack Got To Do With Dog Training?

Dog with leash on pulling

I have to admit that the amount of training I do with my dogs is at times embarrassingly small! Last winter I raised three puppies all the same age and by the time they were a year old, they still didn’t know how to down or even shake a paw!! Not exactly impressive for somebody who teaches dog training classes for a living! Despite their lack of formal education however, they did not jump up on visitors, they never pulled on leash, they never bolted through doors and they always came when they were called. My time investment to get these important behaviors was pretty much zero and I owe it all to the Premack Principle.

Let Them Eat Cake

The Premack Principle states the following: a high probability behavior will reinforce a low probability behavior. Did your mother tell you to eat your vegetables before you had dessert? If she did, she might have taken psychology 101 in school as she was putting Premack into action. Eating vegetables for kids is a low probability behavior: it is not very high on their list of things they want to do. Eating desserts and sweets for most kids is a very high probability behavior: it is something they are very motivated to want to do. By rewarding vegetable eating with dessert eating, mothers make vegetable eating much more likely to happen. The high probability dessert eating reinforces vegetable eating.

What has this got to do with my dog pulling on leash?

In order to get your dog to give you behaviors you want instead of engaging in the behaviors that he wants, you only need to know the relative value of each behavior. For example, ball chasing for most dogs is much more reinforcing than dropping it at your feet or in your hand. Your dog learns over time however, that there is a relationship between the two: he must bring the ball to you before you throw the ball for him. Your dog quickly learns to exchange a low probability behavior (dropping the ball) for a high probability behavior (chasing the ball). Ball chasing reinforces the behavior of ball dropping and your dog will be much more likely to drop the ball in order to earn your throw.

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In the case of my puppies, I only needed to know the relative values of the behaviors I wanted them to engage in and the behaviors they wanted to engage in and I could quickly train them without formal training sessions, cookies or coercion. To teach my puppies to wait at the door, I simply made going through the door (a high probability behavior) contingent on sitting and waiting (a low probability behavior). That meant I would put my hand on the door knob and wait and smile. Once my puppies offered me what I wanted (sit), I gave them what they wanted (I would open the door). Sitting and waiting was reinforced by going through the door.

To teach my puppies to not pull on leash, I again needed to know the relative values of the behavior my puppy wanted (rushing and pulling to see people) and the behavior I wanted (walking beside me). I then made certain that the low probability behavior (walking politely beside me) was reinforced by the high probability behavior (visiting people). This might seem like an over simplistic view of loose leash walking, but you only need to manipulate the order of the high and low probability behaviors to persuade your dog to walk politely beside you. When walking your dog down your street, other people, other dogs, fire hydrants, cats and squirrels are viewed by us as distractions and we try to use cookies, prong collars, bribes and threats to get our dogs to walk calmly in their presence. Your dog however, does not see these as distractions: he sees them as high value reinforcers. The worst mistake you can make when teaching loose leash walking is to not use these reinforcers!! Use the Premack Principle when teaching your dog to walk on a loose leash. If you are walking down the street and your dog sees another dog he would like to visit, make it clear to him that there is an exchange program in place: if he gives you the low probability behavior you want (walking calmly at your side), then reinforce that with a high probability behavior (getting to visit the other dog). Do not ask for more than he can offer: ask for just one or two steps beside you, then release him to see the other dog (OK, go play). As he becomes more aware of the exchange, you can ask for more and more steps until he will pass any distraction while walking calmly at your side.

dog walk

(Photo courtesy of Vic Neumann)

Mother Knows Best

It can be a mistake to not take stock of what behaviors are highly reinforcing for your dog. You will have a much better chance of getting your dog to do what you want if it earns him access to what he wants. Obedience should not be viewed by your dog as something that takes reinforcement opportunities away from him: it should be something that he can exchange to gain access to what he really wants. Once this exchange program is in place, a very cool thing happens. Those low probability behaviors like sit and walking on a loose leash, actually become high probability behaviors because they are associated with very powerful reinforcers that your dog really values. Like your mother, you now know a thing or two about the Premack Principle. Now go eat your vegetables!

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