Using the Premack Principle to Teach Focus

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The Premack Principle is simple and powerful and plays a critical role in training.

It states that what the dog wants to do (called a “high-probability behavior”) can be used to reinforce what you want the dog to do (called a “low-probability behavior”). In other words, you can reward the dog (or person, or whale) by giving him access to do what he wants after he does something that you want. This is the you-scratch my-back-I’ll-scratch-yours school of dog training.

That sounds obvious. What makes this principle so interesting is that it takes the conflict out of training your dog. If your dog is dying to sniff a spot of grass, and you say, “No, you are not supposed to self-reward; you must pay attention only to me. Never think about grass. Now watch me!” you are not making the grass any less interesting. But if your dog really wants to sniff that patch of grass, and you ask the dog to do something else for you such as make eye contact for a moment, then send him to sniff the grass, you have reinforced him for paying attention and taken the conflict out of the situation by letting him do what he wanted.

(In other words, eat your vegetables and THEN you can have ice cream)

A handler that doesn’t allow the dog to sniff often feels caught in a constant battle between winning the dog’s focus versus losing the dog to the environment. Using the Premack Principle and letting the dog do what he wanted to in the first place allows you to become the gateway to the environment. The dog learns that being attentive to you is not in conflict with doing other activities; being attentive to you is the way your dog gets access to the other activities. In this way, your dog becomes patterned to pay attention to you even in very distracting situations.

Look at Me, get to sniff

Walk nicely on the leash, increase the pace (or continue the walk if you choose to STOP)

By Leslie McDevitt, MLS, CDBC, CPDT: At a seminar I gave recently, I was handed an Aussie mix that was wild. The dog ran around the ring, sniffing the floor, and staring at other dogs. She had no concept that “We’re here to work.” Although she was not a clicker-trained dog, I just started clicking and treating any bit of orientation the dog gave me (like slight turns in my direction). Once she ate, immediately I pointed her in the direction of whatever she had been doing, simultaneously giving a verbal release. In about five minutes I couldn’t get that dog to look away from me. People were shocked.

Using the Premack Principle allows you to pattern a behavior chain in the dog where returning to you and paying attention is connected to going away from you and sniffing. The reason this technique works is that you are patterning the dog, teaching her that going away is connected to coming back to pay attention.

But wait … there’s more. There is a strong reverse psychology component operating in this principle as well. The more you tell the dog to do what he wants, the less he wants to do it! Therefore, not only have you patterned the dog to pay attention to you as part of his going away and sniffing, but sniffing is no longer the big deal that it once was because there’s no conflict. Nobody is telling the dog it’s not allowed.


David Premack developed the Premack Principle. It puts forth “the observation that high-probability behavior reinforces low-probability behavior.” Essentially it means this: “Eat your vegetables and you can have dessert.” To make this a bit easier to understand in terms of dog training, high-probability behaviors are what the dog wants; low-probability behaviors are what you want. In the following, you’ll learn how to use this principle to get the behaviors you want from your dog.

Eating Your Vegetables First: What You Want

Canine Caveats

Be sure to pick only those things that you would want to use as reinforcers later. Sock stealing, paper eating, garbage raiding, poop eating, furniture rearranging or chewing, and general behaviors you don’t want don’t count and shouldn’t be on this list.

So what do you want from your dog? Think about this—really think. It’s not easy, is it? Write it down if you have to. Come up with some concrete things you want from your dog. If you don’t do this, you won’t, well, know what you want from your dog! And if you don’t know what you want, how the heck is he supposed to know? I know dogs are very smart and may seem to be “almost human,” but as of yet, I don’t believe that dogs (or spouses or children) can really read your mind.

Do you want your dog to sit quietly at the door when the leash is being put on? How about calm behaviors when walking down the street? Perhaps bringing the ball and dropping it at your feet rather than 20 feet away? Wouldn’t you like to be able to peacefully sit and watch TV or prepare his food dish and put it on the floor without being mauled? Maybe you’d like him to stop straining at the leash to get to his doggie pal so that he can play. You can get all of these things and more, by finding out what your dog wants—what floats his boat.

After you’ve thought it over, write down your goals—what you want from your dog. Now that you’ve written down what you want from your dog, it’s time to figure out and write down what he wants.

Hot Fudge Sundae: What Does Your Dog Want?

Pooch Pointers

Be creative and watch your dog. He’ll tell you what he wants. It may change from day to day, hour to hour, and even minute to minute. And that’s okay—it will give you more reinforcers to choose from.

How will you know what your dog wants? Watch him carefully and write down what he enjoys most. Don’t think you’ll remember it all without writing it down, because you won’t. Humor me and write it down anyway. It’ll come in handy later.

Your dog might like to sniff; roll in smelly things; sniff; chase toys; play tug; play with other dogs; sniff; go swimming; go for a car ride; go for a walk, jog, or run; play in an open field; sniff; chase ducks, deer, or geese; herd sheep; find small rodents; be petted or massaged; sniff; practice agility; cuddle with you; sniff; get belly rubs; retrieve objects; sniff; eat food; pee on bushes (hopefully yours and not the neighbor’s); get attention from you; be groomed (my dogs like to be groomed); and last but not least, sniff.

At this time you should have two lists—one with what you want and one with what your dog wants. Now let’s put them together.

Making Everyone’s Dreams Come True

The great thing about Premack is that your dog will very often learn to enjoy “lima beans”—what you want, be it a stay, loose-leash walking, being touched or groomed. So not only will she learn to accept a bunch of new things, but if you make what she wants contingent upon doing what you want, you will see an increase of tolerance and an increase of appropriate behaviors.

Attention = Sheep Herding

Canine Caveats

If you “give in” to your dog for any of these things, then you’re reinforcing the wrong behaviors. “Oh, but I drove all this way so that she could swim.” Too bad, Bucko. If you’re serious about wanting certain behaviors, then don’t give in to the unacceptable behaviors you don’t want.

Beau, one of my Border Collies, wanted to herd sheep. However, he thought I was irrelevant and was along only as a taxi driver. When herding sheep, it’s important that the dog understand that he and his person are a team. He can’t herd sheep without someone telling him what direction to go, and his person can’t herd sheep without the dog doing his job.

Beau would drag me to the sheep pen. It was obvious by his inattentiveness to me that I didn’t exist in his eyes. If I let him herd sheep anyway, he would ignore me and wouldn’t take direction from me.

To teach him to focus on me, I insisted that he give me attention, heeling all the way from the car to the sheep pen. No attention meant no sheep. If he ignored me, I would tie him to a post and leave. If he made movements toward me, I would come back to him. If his eye contact then wavered, I would leave again. There was no punishment, no anger, no letting him herd sheep, and no hard feelings. I just patiently waited for his attention.

It took him four “sheepless” sheep lessons to understand that he had to focus on me if he wanted to herd sheep. Once he learned this lesson, he was attentive outside the pen as well as inside.

Does Your Dog Own You?

Doggie Data

Sue’s Australian Cattle Dog, Barney, wanted “sniffing” as his full-time job, so she put him on a “pay attention to me or you don’t get to sniff” program.

Sue insisted on eye contact from Barney from the instant he left the car—she gave him 30 seconds to respond. If he ignored her, back into the car he went. Once he made eye contact within 30 seconds, she lowered the time and repeated this until Barney was responding within three seconds.

Sue would ask for some heeling, a “Sit,” or a “Down.” Then as a reward, she allowed Barney to sniff for a minute. If he didn’t respond, he was put back into the car. Pretty soon, Barney was quickly responding to all sorts of cues—and sniffing less!

You can make use of any of the things on your “what the dog wants” list to get what you want. Say you want to allow your dog to go swimming. You don’t want her to drag you to the lake or pool. Make swimming dependent upon walking to the lake on a loose leash. No loose-leash walking, no swimming. If she doesn’t walk nicely on the leash, just put her back in the car, wait for five to ten minutes, and try again. If, after three to four tries, she still hasn’t noticed that you’re alive, take her back home.

In the beginning, you may have to lower your criterion to start. For instance, you may realistically only be able to get two steps of loose-leash walking before racing to the lake. That’s okay. You can build that to three steps, then four, and so on. Make those first approximations small, and you will see success.

Becoming a Master Manipulator

I am working with two Beagles. Now that breed has a natural tendency to have their noses on the ground 24/7. Why? Because we humans bred in that behavior. So instead of fighting their “Beagle-ness,” we worked with it and exploited it. The first week, we asked (okay, we lured … and then asked) for about one minute of attention and then let them go be Beagles for about 10 minutes. Then we repeated the process and asked for two minutes of attention, and then 10 minutes of being a dog. By lesson number three, they were both glued to their owners for 15 to 20 minutes at a clip.

The moral? Work with your dog, not against her, and you will have the dog of your dreams.

Your dog wants to go out, but you don’t want her to jump up and down like an idiot when you try to put on her collar and leash. Ignore her jumping, and patiently wait. Once she’s sitting calmly, put the leash on. If at any time she starts jumping again, stand still and wait. If it takes 15 minutes, then so be it. She will very quickly learn that if she sits quietly, she’ll get to go for a walk faster.

The key for Premacking anything is to know what your dog wants and then ask for what you want—be it calm behavior, eye contact, “Sits,” “Downs,” “Stays,” or whatever it is you want from her at the time.