Magic Mustang Tamer

The Premack Principle

The Premack Principle causes trainers more headaches than anything else. It is very hard to become conscious of all the ways that it affects our animals. It is also confusing to learn about. Good luck.

Premack Reinforcement:  Wikipedia Link

The Premack Principle says that one activity can be used to positively reinforce another activity in certain cases. This applies to situations where one behavior is more likely than the other.

Behaviors that are unlikely: behaviors with no or little history of reinforcement.

Behaviors that are likely: Behaviors that have a more extensive history of reinforcement. Behaviors that provide a more valued reinforcer.

This principle is sometimes called Grandma’s Law because people interpret it to mean “Grandma says you have to eat your vegetables before you can eat ice cream.” This interpretation misses the real consequences of the Premack Principle because ice cream is a primary reinforcer. Most trainers miss the real significance of this principle.

Antecedents RequiredThe likely behavior has a relatively strong history of being reinforced.

BehaviorThe animal performs the unlikely behavior (new behavior usually)

ConsequenceThe animal is offered the opportunity to perform the Likely Behavior.

PredictionThe behavior will increase in frequency.

Scenario 1:

  • Antecedent – your dog knows how to sit and you have rewarded him many times for sitting.
  • Behavior – the dog jumps up on you when you come home.
  • Consequence – You tell the dog to sit when it is jumping.
  • Prediction – Jumping on you will increase in frequency.

Scenario 2:

  • Antecedent – your horse has practiced stopping when you say whoa and is quite good at it.
  • Behavior – the horse walks faster than you and is forging ahead as you try to lead it.
  • Consequence – You cue the horse to “whoa” to allow you to catch up.
  • Prediction –  Forging will increase.

What should you do instead of redirect? Prevent the behavior before the animal has time to perform it, ignore the unwanted behavior, or punish it with a mild aversive (LRS). The take away lesson that you need to understand is that redirection to a well known behavior can have unintended consequences.

To use it in the Grandma’s Law form, where we intentionally use it to reinforce desirable behavior, we have this kind of scenario:

  • Antecedent – the animal knows Task 02 very well, since it was taught as the first operant conditioning task in the Basic Taming Protocol.
  • Behavior – the animal is standing still while being brushed (Task 10).
  • Consequence – the trainer cues for Task 02.
  • Prediction – the animal will continue or be more likely to stand still.

Let me know in the comments about your successes and failures that stem from the Premack Principle.

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