Letting Your Dog Choose Their Own Motivation: The Premack Principle

The Premack Principle is an important tool to have in your dog training arsenal. It states that a high probability behavior will reinforce a low probability behavior. In terms of dog training, this means that what the dog wants to do (such as sniffing a bush or chasing a squirrel) can be used to reinforce what you want the dog to do. The high probability event of chasing the squirrel reinforces them heeling/focusing or whatever behavior you want them to do. The Premack Principle can be utilized in multiple different ways and for different behaviors you are training for.

The Premack Principle takes the conflict out of dog training because the dog chooses what will motivate them the most to perform the action. You are able to remove the conflict and reward the dog with what they want if they perform the low probability behavior that you want. If your dog really wants to sniff grass and you ask them for something (like a sit) and they perform it successfully, then you can send them to do that awesome thing they wanted to do (sniff grass). You become the gateway to all the wonderful, amazing things in your dog’s environment. Sometimes food becomes less of a motivator and you will need something better to motivate the dog to train or reinforce behaviors. What could be better than letting the dog choose their own motivation? Also, you are not going to always be the most interesting thing in the world to your dog, however you can be the gateway to the most interesting things in the world.

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Let’s talk about the Premack Principle and playing ball. Chasing the ball is the high probability behavior that the dog wants to do, however they know that they need to drop the ball (low probability behavior) in order to get what they want. Chasing the ball can be used to motivate and reinforce the behavior of dropping the ball which in turn will make the behavior of dropping the ball much more likely in the future.

In addition, when teaching dogs that they need to wait at the door rather than simply rushing through it, the Premack Principle can be utilized. You make going through the door (the high probability behavior) contingent on the low probability behavior of sitting and waiting for you to let them. Being able to enter into a new environment through a doorway is the reward for sitting and paying attention to you. For any training situation, you can click/mark and treat any time you dog focuses on you rather than the focusing on the distraction they want to go to, then point and give them the verbal que that they can go and do want they originally wanted.

You don’t need to be the most interesting thing in the world to motivate your dog to do what you want. The Premack Principle can be used to allow the dog to choose their own motivator (high probability behavior) that can be used to reinforce the behaviors you want them to perform.

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