Premack Principle AKA Premacking and the power of prediction in creating value transfer

Premack Principle AKA Premacking

and the power of prediction in creating value transfer.



I had a warm piece of chocolate brownie cake on my birthday. The frosting was fudgy; the cake was moist. I ate it slowly with a bit of vanilla ice cream. If I had been given broccoli for my birthday treat, when I was expecting a cake, my disappointment level would have been defcon 5 but I ate my greens with dinner.


I have used an example of a choice between broccoli and chocolate cake as a training analogy in my classes for years. It's a clear example of many of the problems people face in training their dogs and their children and even forming the good healthy habits we need to function in our personal lives.


When there is no cake, broccoli is just fine as a reward, It’s crunchy and tasty and even healthy… However, given a free choice, a dog (and often ourselves) is “likely” to choose the cake. Not the Broccoli. Too often we go into a training session holding (figuratively) broccoli and try to make the dog ignore the figurative cake (don’t feed your dog chocolate.) We are asking our dog to make an impossible choice. You see, we have this low-value thing and we expect them to pass on the high-value rewards that are FREE to them in the environment. Those things your dog wants to do and can’t seem to ignore… Those are the “likely behaviors.” These behaviors contain their own high-value rewards. We also call these “self reinforcing behaviors.” Sniffing, chasing, barking, digging, chewing, possessing the toy and so on.


Where many articles on this topic and trainers who use this principle miss the boat is that the broccoli doesn't have to be broccoli. They can both be cake! Let's call them “small cake” and “big cake.” Given a free choice between the two the dog always picks “big cake,” until it gets premacked and sees “small cake” as the on-switch for “big cake.”


The psych textbook might say:

A Likely Behavior May Reinforce An Unlikely Behavior.


I find people often have a hard time understanding Premack’s Principle when described that way but it's entirely accurate. Another way of saying this might be: performing the unlikely choice becomes a prediction or an “on-switch” that the high value reward becomes available. In this way we achieve a transfer of value from the likely behavior to the unlikely behavior. In that way the dog sees the small choice as the on-switch for the thing they wanted much, much more.


Premack's Principle could also be more simply stated as: A low value reward can predict a high value reward.


Alarms should be going off in your head right now at the power of that statement. Let it sink in for a moment if you need and reread it.



Where we see an amazing result with this idea is in Bite-work. I know not everyone wants to do bite-work but bear with me as it is a great analogy for all those things your dog really wants to do that you have issues getting them to ignore. Bite-work, AKA “protection dog” is challenging work to say the least. It is not dogs biting whatever and whoever, being over aggressive or over protective. Good bite-work is precise, focused, structured and reliable. It is an example of all of the traits we need from good dogs. It just includes behaviors that not every owner wants. Try to see past these differences if you are not familiar and think of these things as obedience in the face of extreme competing motivation.


For a protection dog to function in the job, he or she, MUST WANT THE BITE. A lot. During the training process we make biting the bite equipment highly rewarding and fun for the dog. We allow the dog to feel powerful, often even more powerful than they actually are during the bite. As helpers and decoys, we over-act to the dog’s power and get them to think they are super dogs. Soon they start to believe it and act like super dogs. Flying after the bite and moving at incredible speeds. Braving even the most fierce opposition and capturing and defeating foes many times their size.

I ran some reps with a personal protection dog client a while back. The dog, Piper, a female working-lines German Shepherd, was a rock star on the decoy (Me.) She bit like a beast. However, she started getting salty on the out, failing to let go on command and started to leave the handler without cue. Making her own free choice to take what she wanted. She also had failures to recall, losing handler focus... but biting well.