The Perils of Premature Premack

Zani waiting at the back door
Zani waiting at the back door. Her reinforcement for this polite behavior is the opportunity to go outside.


Is it possible that in some cases, using the Premack principle in choosing reinforcement for our dogs is not the best choice? Can attempting Premack cause problems?[1]*A technicality, but it’s important. Notice I haven’t said “Premack didn’t work.” That’s like saying that reinforcement didn’t work. Reinforcement is defined … Continue reading

In my experience, yes. It can go wrong with some behaviors, with some dogs, and especially with some inexperienced trainers (yours truly takes a bow).

Premack’s principle states that more probable behaviors will reinforce less probable behaviors. In other words, you can use an activity the dog really enjoys to reinforce something that is ho-hum. You can reinforce loose leash walking with a tug session. You can reinforce sitting politely while the leash is attached with going for a walk. Premack is all about life rewards.

Premack is often suggested in situations when a dog really, really wants to do something, so much so that they are having a hard time with self control. My dog Zani loves little kids. If I wanted to apply Premack to this situation, I could use the opportunity to visit with them (if they were interested and it was OK with Mom) to reinforce her walking calmly up to them without pulling. Visiting with children could be a more potent reinforcer than a really good food treat for Zani. So the Premack principle can turn a distraction into a reinforcer. For my dog Summer, being brought close to children would be punishing. She’s nervous about them.

By the way, Premack applies to punishment, too. Many of David Premack’s experiments involved punishing a behavior by inducing the animal to subsequently perform an undesired behavior. We can think of examples of this easily in our life with dogs. If the only time we take a dog into a certain bathroom is to take a bath, and he hates baths (and we haven’t done anything to mitigate that), the behavior of wandering into that bathroom with us will decrease.

There is one obvious answer to the question posed by my title. Premack is not a good choice when the behavior is never acceptable. For instance, my young dog Clara loves to pounce on and body slam my other dogs. She would love it if I allowed that, but of course I don’t. I teach incompatible behaviors and I interrupt it. And I try to give her opportunities for very physical play with me, with some firm ground rules.

But there is another situation in which Premack is not the best choice, and it can be hard to recognize, especially for pet owners and anyone who is trying to teach their dog without an in-person expert teacher.

In my experience, Premack may not be a good choice when the desired behavior triggers stress, arousal, or a strong emotional response from the dog, or if the behavior results from these conditions.

Summer waiting at the back door
Summer waiting at the back door. What is wrong with this picture?

I think this can be an insidious problem, since behaviors and situations the dog gets really excited about are precisely what prompt people to recommend Premack. If you spend any time at all on dog training Internet discussion groups, you know that whenever someone describes something the dog is passionate about (squirrels) someone else is going to suggest using Premack. This advice comes as regular as clockwork. Give the dog contingent access to the squirrels.

I’ve gotten so I flinch every time I see those recommendations come rolling in. It may work out just fine. But the newbie trainer who is describing the problem may not have a correct assessment of the situation, and/or the skill to use the Premack reinforcer.

I can relate three personal experiences where Premack didn’t work out for me. And I mean, spectacularly didn’t work out. My own inexperience was part of the problem, but that’s my point.

1. Reinforcing loose leash walking with a chance to run towards a squirrel, with my dog Summer. This was a disaster. I was brand new to training, but it seemed like such a good idea, made to order. What I didn’t know then was that Summer has a very high prey drive, is hyper-vigilant, and very environmentally sensitive. I also didn’t know that I really needed to have taught her more about LLW itself (using food). But instead, I jumped right into Premack. When we would see a squirrel I would require a few steps of LLW, followed by a quiet sit. Then I would release her and we would run together to the squirrel and she would lose her mind. When I got tired of circling the squirrel tree with her, I had to figure out a way to get her away. Her capability of going for a normal walk was completely gone by that point.

If you are going to allow the dog some kind of engagement with the environment as a reinforcer, I think there is a prerequisite to being able to make it work. You need a way to get them back, and it seems to me that you need to train this first. You need your dog to be able to recover from a potent emotional response fluently. These are challenging things to do, and usually not in place if you are having a big issue with distractions in the first place.

By the way, I used sniffing as a reinforcer for loose leash walking with moderate success with my dog Zani. I allowed stopping to calmly sniff as a reinforcer for walking nicely on leash. But in her case, I had a little more experience than I had had when I tried it with Summer and the squirrels. I taught Zani a cue to go sniff, “Beagle!” And a cue to come back to my side, “With me!” I practiced the pair of behaviors in boring environments before taking it on the road, and I taught Zani the correct position for LLW to begin with already with food.

2. Reinforcing Clara for not jumping up to lick my face by letting her lick my face on cue, with four paws on the floor. Ouch. Another newbie error on my part. It seemed like such a no-brainer. I mean, if she is dying to jump up and get my face, that seems like a great candidate for Premack, right? Well in our case, wrong. I recently wrote a whole post about the face mugging problem and all the things I tried. I was well on my way to trying Premack when I thought to ask my teacher about it. She took a look at Clara, and said that her jumping up at my face did not look like a happy behavior. It was stress-related. So even if I had succeeded in teaching her how to lick my face without the danger of breaking my jaw, I might have ended up with a situation like Summer at the door (see below).

3. Reinforcing sitting politely at the back door with going outside with Summer. This is a lovely method for two of my dogs, Zani and Clara. See Zani’s photo above. It is one of the most commonly recommended uses of the Premack principle in dog training. But again, it didn’t work for Summer. You would think that something she wanted so badly—to charge out into the yard checking for cats, squirrels, and other varmints—would cause a very prompt, snappy sit at the door. Not so. As you can see in the video, sometimes she can’t sit at all. And if she does sit,  she will not accept a treat. She is what is often called “over threshold.” She is anticipating what might be in the yard, and is having a big emotional response to that. She is also showing the fallout of years of conflict with me at the door. I didn’t cope with her behavior well, especially at first. I nagged her because I was completely oblivious to what was going on. I made the situation worse.

By the way, Zani is also at the door and can be seen at 1:24 in the video in an exemplary calm sit, even though she is excited to go out, too. She is not drowned in excitement and stress hormones.

I fully acknowledge that a better trainer could have managed this situation better. She could have taught Summer first to be calm in the face of the potential excitement. Then worked up to using the Premack reinforcer when she could keep her wits about her. I should have aborted the project when my behavior was obviously stressing her out. But that’s my point. Premack is often recommended to beginners and to us non-professionals. And it can really backfire without some experienced eyes on what is happening. When I first started doing this years ago I had no idea why Summer’s sit was not more reliable. This method seemed to work for everybody else. To be perfectly frank, I read her body language as “sulky.” I thought she was being a bratty adolescent; moving slowly and giving me a dirty look because I didn’t let her out fast enough.

You might think that I would have run into a problem with her stress at the door just as badly if I had used food as the reinforcer for a calm sit. But using food diffuses Summer’s overexcitement, and doesn’t feed into it. (Many trainers have noted that food tends to have a calming effect when training behaviors, as opposed to using tug or other high arousal activities.) She has practiced her frozen shutdown followed by running out in a frenzy for years now. But reinforcing a sit near the door with a high-value food treat instead, and doing training sessions in this area of the house, are changing the potential reinforcement map in my favor. The excitement of the outdoors pales a little, which is good. She starts thinking of other ways she can earn the treat. Hmmm, how about reorienting to me after she goes through the door? Great!

Premack Successes

Let this post be a cautionary tale. But lest it appear that I am saying not to use Premack at all, let me mention some Premack reinforcers that have worked really well for me.

  • The two ball game: reinforcing Clara for releasing the ball by throwing another ball (this works with one ball, too, but was easier for me to teach with two)
  • Tug and flirt pole releases: reinforcing them with the resumption of the game (I should mention that I don’t think I would have succeeded with this one without the help of my teacher, though)
  • Putting on the leash: gets reinforced by getting to go somewhere
  • Agility sequences: reinforced for Summer with play in the water hose
  • Loading into the car crate: getting to go somewhere
  • Getting and staying in a down when I walk in the room with something in my hands: gets reinforced by getting to sniff what is in my hands (guess who: Clara)
  • Walking nicely on leash: reinforced by opportunities for Zani to sniff
  • Most behaviors: reinforced by eating food treats. Gotcha! Eating is a behavior. So really, everything is Premack.

I’m always discovering hidden genius in the Training Levels. Sue Ailsby talks about using Premack or life rewards plenty. She seems personally to be a master at transitioning to life rewards. But she uses food first. Using doors as an example: Level 1 Sit, Step 4: Dog sits by an open door. A whole Step dedicated to using food treats to teach the dog self-control around a door. Level 3 Zen: this whole Level behavior is entirely about self-control around doors, and you don’t send the dog charging out as a reinforcer once! Using food can diffuse the emotional potency of doors to the outside. It makes the door area just another training environment.

So now, almost 6 years into our relationship, Summer and I are spending a whole lot of time doing “silly dog tricks around doors.” To undo the problem I helped to create–with this particular dog–by trying to use the Premack principle first.

What about you all? Am I the only one who has made some poor Premack choices or implementations? And can anyone help me come up with a more general–or more specific–guideline for when Premack might not be the best idea? I don’t think I have ever seen this discussed online.

Thanks for reading!

Coming up soon:


1 *A technicality, but it’s important. Notice I haven’t said “Premack didn’t work.” That’s like saying that reinforcement didn’t work. Reinforcement is defined by its effects on future behavior. If the behavior didn’t increase, then there was no reinforcement. Likewise, you can’t say, “Premack didn’t work.” If what you tried didn’t reinforce the behavior, there was no Premack.

27 thoughts on “The Perils of Premature Premack

  1. I enjoy these studies. I find that similar things intrigue us and fascinate us. I enjoy reading your blog posts. I wish I had someone like you closer whom I could exchange ideas and train dogs with! Happy training 🙂

  2. Thank you! I have made ALL THESE SAME MISTAKES. I am working with my first puppy, all mine, all alone. I grew around up old school techniques: rolled up newspaper, yelling “no!”, choke collars, and hitting dogs but when I got my first puppy I found myself unable to be even remotely forceful or negative for several reasons: she was very sick when I adopted her, Victoria Stillwell planted very valid positive reinforcement nuggets in my mind, target training with food worked fast (!) but yelling at her made her “sad” or what I learned later was that she shutdown hardcore for extended periods of time even if it was a “no!” of surprise/alarm because she was trying to eat something dangerous, and I didnt want a relationship with my dog full of conflict and frustration; I adopted with the intent of having a best bud. Enter training classes and basic premack lessons. She can’t seem to handle a calm sit in front of the petco door though she does just fine at the dog park gate and my apt building. I keep trying premack (sit and you can go inside) and she is actually loosing her ability to sit more with time. If she doesn’t sit we walk away and she is devastated. I used chasing pigeons just as you described for LLW but now she wants after every bird, sits and won’t move until the bird flies away or we chase it. She used to be afraid of face to face proximity so I taught “hug” and “kiss” so she puts her front paws on my shoulders and bumps noses with me, respectively. Now she runs up to new people and tries to jump into their face for licking kiss fest without permission, which is unacceptable. So now I have to figure out how to rein this in to create boundaries and clear expectations for us both. Your article helps though, and reading how it failed for you helped me really admit that it failed for me too. But it has done wonders with resource guarding issues, seperation anxiety, not barking at the door, jogging with me, fetch, fear of bath, LLW (with food), and a calm down “chill”.

    1. Melissa, thanks for sharing all this! Maybe between the two of us we can give others hope. I have managed to almost entirely diffuse Summer’s stress at the the door just by having training sessions there (for food), and also working with the door open. I don’t know if you can do that at PetCo, smile. I hope people who recommend Premack for everything on discussion lists will take heed to our stories. People tend to bring it up as a magic solution. It’s not always something to recommend lightly. Let me know how your progress goes.

  3. Thanks Eileen, this is definitely something I need to watch our for when I’m trying to use Premack. I have a situation that I think is an example of what you’re discussing in this post. I walk dogs for a local rescue and some of the dogs have to be kept in kennel runs because they aren’t dog friendly. Needless to say these dogs go absolutely nuts when I come to take them out, jumping, spinning, trying to mug me etc. Getting a harness on them is NOT easy. Seemed like a perfect chance to use Premack, I would put the harness on when they stood still. Well you can probably imagine how that worked, no dogs would have been walked if I’d stuck to my plan >g< I've never really understood why Premack wasn't working though, maybe I just wasn't patient enough to wait them out or I just wasn't quick enough to get the harness on during the 2 second pauses between leaps? Now I think you've given me my answer, these dogs are way over threshold at the chance to go for a walk and they really aren't able to control themselves.
    Thanks again,

    1. That’s a really interesting example, Mary. I bet you are right. It would be one thing if you were just hooking a leash to a collar, since you usually can do that in the two-second quiet interval. But probably not a harness. And I bet some of the dogs get overstimulated by the handling, too. My teacher always says in that situation just to try to get it over with quickly. Maybe someone can separately work on self control and polite greeting/response to handling. Bless you for walking the rescue dogs!

      1. You’re right about the handling adding to the overstimulation. I think if there was some way to let the dogs out of their kennels and let them calm down just a little before putting the harness on it would help but the situation just doesn’t allow it. So I do what your teacher suggests, get the harness on and out the door as quick as we can. I try to walk each dog for 1hr (there are usually only 3-4 dogs) and I usually do some training on the second half of the walk. The dogs learn quickly once they clam down enough to think. I think if they were in homes they would improve quickly, unfortunately since they are dog aggressive homes are hard to find. I understand that too, my own dog is not great with other dogs. Dog friendly is high on my list of attributes I want in my next dog.

  4. This is just a random thought, but I saw the most interesting video on loose leash walking the other day.

    The stopping and starting thing might be fun for the shelter dogs, teach them to pay attention to the human, but not be so tedious as a formal lesson in LLW. I.e., they could still really have a walk while practicing this stuff.

    I really appreciate my dog friendly dogs too, since I’ve got one that isn’t. Nothing like one of those to keep you on your toes. Thanks for writing!

    1. So I’ve been trying this with the rescues and have had some success. I can’t implement the whole method for alot of reasons that aren’t important here. However I’ve had very good response to the “standing on a loose leash” part. I’m still using the old “be a tree” method but now when I’ve stopped I release the leash pressure slowly and don’t start walking again unless the dog stands there with the leash loose. At first this takes 3-4 tries because as soon as the pressure is released the dog hits the end of the leash again. As the walk continues things slowly improve and after about 30 mins they actually start releasing the pressure themselves. When they feel the pressure on the leash they slow down. Now it’s not perfect loose leash walking by a long shot but it’s much better. It’s also a method I’m comfortable using because it’s really pretty gentle. Thanks again for the video.

  5. Thanks Eileen, the video is great, definitely alot of info there. I’ll have to watch it a few more times and take some notes. Then I’ll try it on the rescues. I’ll let you know how it goes.

  6. I was googling “Premack in dog training” as I’d gotten a suggestion to use it with my GSP, and your blog popped up. Premack had worked wonderfully in certain situations (ironically, going through the door to get outside, and wanting to sniff while on a leashed walk), and spectacularly failed in others, like getting to go stalk songbirds. I have an inkling as to why now: when anticipating bird stalking, my dog behaves exactly like Summer in the video you have up. So way over the threshold. I really enjoyed this post, and I’m off to read other postings you have. Thank you for putting up these thoughtful and very helpful discussions!

    1. Hey, great! Glad you found the blog and found it helpful. Thanks for the comment.

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.
%d bloggers like this: