The Premack Principle and the Recall

Both these photographs show dogs that are exhibiting high-probability behaviours. David Premack, a psychologist, proposed the rule that high probability behaviours can be used to reinforce low-probability behaviours.  We can use this principle when training dogs very successfully.

High-probability behaviours are activities which are performed voluntarily and which are enjoyed for themselves without the intervention of the handler or owner.  Some examples of this would be playing with other dogs (if your dog is a social butterfly), chasing monkeys or squirrels, barking at the neighbour’s dogs through the fence, sniffing interesting smells.

Low-probability behaviours, on the other hand are behaviours which are often the learned or trained behaviours, such as the recall and walking on a loose leash.

The Premack Principle works extremely well if applied to the recall.  In a familiar, non-distracting environment your dog’s recall is probably faultless.  He comes to you at full speed whenever he is called, and you reward him with lavish praise, or a treat, or a game.  You think that you have a great recall.  But, then you take your dog to the local dog park, or to the beach and you probably find that your recall is awful.  Your dog might eventually come to you, and what do you do?  You promptly put him on lead, walk him to the car and go home.  You have not used premack.  What you have done is effectively punished your dog by removing something he wants.  The way Premack works in this instance is that instead of putting your dog on leash you send him back to sniff, or play, or indulge in whatever activity he was doing before you called him.  If you repeat this a few times you will find that each time the recall becomes more and more enthusiastic. Your dog has learnt that to get what he wants (high probability “stuff”) he has to do what you want (low probability “stuff” under the circumstances).

You can use Premack to strengthen any learned behaviours.  I am sure you can think of a few instances where Premack would be useful.  Calling your dog out of a play situation, barking at the neighbours dog through the fence, chasing seagulls on the beach.  The list goes on….

Try Premack next time you take your dog out with you to make his learned behaviours stronger.  You’ll be amazed at the result.

3 Responses to The Premack Principle and the Recall

  1. […] is definitely NOT what I would call good polite behaviour.  This is a great opportunity to use Premack!  Check out my article on how the Premack Principle can be used to get your dog to do what you […]


  2. […] We continue our obedience training no matter where we are so that the pup learns to work through all the distractions around him and focus on you.  And practise “Come” wherever you are, rewarding your pup by letting him go back and do whatever it is he was doing before you called.  (The Premack Principle). […]


  3. I’m not sure where you’re getting your information,
    but great topic. I needs to spend some time learning much more or
    understanding more. Thanks for great information
    I was looking for this info for my mission.


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