What does “eat your veggies and you can have dessert” have to do with dog training, you might ask? Any good dog trainer will tell you it has a lot to do with dog training! For those who are really into the science behind the training, they will know we are talking about the Premack Principle. Most of us living with dogs really don’t care what the scientific jargon is behind the principles, all we care about is how does this help me? (Sort of how, for dogs, what they care about is, “what’s in this for me?”)

While many people might not have heard the term Premack Principle, I am betting just about everyone has heard “eat your veggies, and you can have dessert” or “clean your room and you can go to the movie” or some variation of that theme. The Premack Principle states that someone will perform a less desirable activity in order to be able to perform a highly desirable activity.  This works for people, dogs and other animals.

Good dog trainers know how to use this when training dogs. Here are a few examples when it comes to dogs:

  • Sit/wait, and you can eat your dinner.
  • Walk nicely on leash, and you may smell that spot where all the neighborhood dogs leave their marks.
  • Walk nicely with me to the gate, sit at the gate, and you will get to enter the dog park and play with the other dogs.

When working with clients, I rarely use the scientific jargon. In these cases, I usually say something like: “Give your dog a job to do. Let him earn the things that matter to him.”

The other day on our walk, I had the chance to use the Premack Principle with Romeo. He was off leash on our walk and he spotted a bunny about twenty feet away. I told him to “wait” and he did. I walked over to him and lightly held is harness to remind him that he was supposed to be waiting. When he’s on leash, he knows he cannot chase and will wait. When he’s off leash, and the bunny is in close proximity, it’s far more challenging for him to make the choice I want him to make. I let go of his harness and told him to “with me” which means walk by my side or behind me but do not pass me. He did. I walked toward the bunny. Then I released him to “go” and he took off after the bunny.

I do not believe in harming any animals, so I only allow this if the bunnies are close to safety. The bunny darted into the thick scrub oak and safely got away. For Romeo, the thrill is in the chase. I don’t always allow him to chase, but it is the most valuable reward I can offer him. So I do use the opportunity when I safely can do so.

Have you used the Premack Principle today?


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