The Premack Principle is, in a nutshell, as best as I can explain it, is that if one can create a link between less desirable and probable behaviours and desirable and less probable behaviours that the more desirable behaviours will start occurring more frequently.

Sampson is the poster child in our household of how Premack can be useful… he marches to his own drum and for him sticking his nose on the ground, flagging his tail and working a field is about as close to heaven on earth as he can get. Coming and sitting quietly by us is not exactly what he wants to do. Walking into daycare could easily be a drag to the bush outside the door .. but premack has saved my shoulders. I’d let him leap out of the car and cue him to go sniff (knowing he would) he’d sniff the bush and I’d reward him for sniffing. We repeated this – send to bush, reward him for going multiple times over 2 days. We play with it  every few days since the original investment of time. This morning I could barely get him to look at the bush. YAY for Sampson! He was choosing to stay in our collective game. He often chooses to join the human games now. He will always love to sniff and work a field, I have no doubt of that, but by never getting upset with him and always making sure being with us was also a good, fun, rewarded option we’ve used premack to our benefit. He now leaps into the open car and patiently waits to do something fun. Even if it means leaving something fun! Astounding really.

I really grasped the concept of Premack with Sally – she hated to release a toy to me and she LOVED to tug. She very quickly learned that the fastest way to get to tug was to release the toy.

It’s easy to get confused with Premack. Linking the desirable and the probable behaviours can be tricky with our canine friends. (It’s easier with my human students I simply can say things like “if you are all on time for class 3 times I will give you a reward” and then do it.) How does Sam know when I am OK with him sniffing and when  to focus on the play work I want done? I am careful to release him to the desired behaviour – timing is critical here – he should not be the one choosing to opt out. I am careful to have good rewards for what I accomplish between his releases. Yes, the probable behaviour is a reward in itself (according to the principle) but other meaningful rewards will make things gel much faster. I am not a purist by any stretch of the imagination. I do what works for the dogs, and me, to keep our play fun and engaged.

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