In dog training there is so much terminology thrown around, quite often it can seem confusing and mind-boggling! Largely, the terms used are extremely simple and many times you may follow a line of training which encapsulates many varying terms, and not even realise it. One of those may well be what is called the ‘Premack principle’. I will hazard a guess many of us, without realising, have encountered the Premack principle on more than a few occasions!
So, what is the Premack principle? We can break the Premack principle down into ‘the probability of behaviours’. So, essentially, a high probability behaviour will reinforce a low probability behaviour. For example, a lot of people liken the Premack principle to the age old problem of ‘how to get children to eat their vegetables’! What do we often do? We offer a lovely dessert if they eat the veg! So, we use the more probable behaviour (eating lovely dessert!) to reinforce the less probable behaviour (eating boring veg!). In this scenario, a mum will use the Principle to change the boring vegetable eating into a behaviour which is more likely to be repeated in the future, by reinforcing it with a high probability behaviour, eating dessert.
Professor David Premack was the mind behind the Premack principle. Studying cebus monkeys, he suggested that a person will perform a less desirable activity in order to access a more desirable activity, thereby showing the activity itself is a reinforcer.
When we look at dog training, or specifically puppy training, we can use the exact same principle! If you have a think about your own puppy, what are his high probability behaviours? A common behaviour used to explain the Premack principle is chasing squirrels, a lot of dogs have the instinctive desire to chase anything fast moving and if it squeaks, even better! So, we can say that squirrel chasing is a high probability behaviour. A low probability behaviour is giving you eye contact or walking to heel when the puppy spots a squirrel.
High probability behaviour = chasing squirrels
Low probability behaviour = offering eye contact
We can then use our high probability behaviour, as a reinforcer for our low probability behaviour. We can ask for eye contact, and then allow a quick run to see where the squirrel disappeared to! By reinforcing the eye contact with a high probability behaviour we are increasing the likelihood of the low probability behaviour being repeated (eye contact).
The squirrel chasing example is a common one, however you can transfer this principle to many different areas of training. A dog has his own unique personality and each dog will have his own list of ‘high probability’ behaviours and ‘low probability’ behaviours. For example, a dog who loves meeting other dogs more than anything in the world, and who is very unlikely to walk to on a loose lead up to another dog to say hello, may benefit from using the Premack principle. We could, for example, use our high probability behaviour to reinforce our low probability behaviour. Maybe we could ask our pup to sit and offer eye contact before being released to say hello, starting off for a second or two and building up the duration of the sit, always following up with our brilliantly valuable reinforcer of saying hello to the other dog. Try to know your pups capabilities, and set them up to succeed, taking it at your pups pace every step of the way. Once your pup understands there is a bit of a ‘deal’ going on, a trade if you like, they will soon start to catch on to when and indeed where, the reward is coming from and what needs to be done to gain it. The association will be made fairly quickly.
It can be interesting to try and come up with your OWN list of probable behaviours. Remember, probable behaviours are any behaviours which will occur when completely free and under no control at all. Mine, for example, would include
- cuddle dogs
- check phone
- eat biscuits
- check emails
- watch soaps
I could go on! Why not have a go writing a list of probable behaviours for your pup? My dog would like have a list like this:
- running about on the grass
- rolling in fox poo
- playing with her ball
- greeting dog friends
- greeting human friends
- jumping (being on back legs!)
This could be extended hugely, any probable behaviour you can think of can be included and there are more than you may realise.
You could also write a ‘less probable behaviours’ list, for my dog this may include:
- coming to have nails clipped
- sit to greet human friends
- stay still for teeth cleaning
- leave fox poo
- ignore a squirrel
This is a slightly tongue-in-cheek list, but you get the idea! So I could, in theory, use her love of greeting friends as a reinforcer for sitting whilst they approach. I’m not going to because I enjoy her excitement at seeing her friends, but if you were trying to achieve a sit upon greeting you could utilise the Premack principle to do so.
Long term, the low probability behaviours become high probability behaviours due to the association with the really very strong reinforcers you have associated them with. Try and remember when you are training any behaviour, it is not always about the removal reinforcement to prevent one behaviour and then teach another, it can often be about thinking ‘outside the box’ and utilising all the reinforcement at your disposal. Use your pups natural instincts, their innate abilities and add these to your reinforcement toolbox!
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