The Drive Principle versus the Premack Principle

Recently I was asked if Natural Dog Training with its use of the Prey Drive in the training of the heel, sit, down, stay and recall regime is but another way of saying the Premack Principle. Below from “Dog Star Daily” is Ian Dunbar’s discussion of the Premack principle.

“The Premack principle suggests that if a dog wants to perform an activity (a high frequency behavior / eating ice cream), they’ll be willing to perform a less desirable activity (low frequency behavior / eating spinach) in order to do so.  The less desirable behavior can be reinforced by the more desirable behavior.  In dog training this means that we can harness the exciting, motivating power of our dog’s favorite behaviors as reinforcers for the behaviors we want them to do.  We can string behavior routines together to charge each step with the positive association of a primary reward.”

Basically the Premack principle is a thin slice of the Drive principle. However, just like the “high value” reward concept in behaviorism, what makes a behavior higher or lower in frequency is always its relation to the prey drive and the Premack principle fails to make this distinction and this will have consequences in training. Making prey (chasing balls, sticks, digging, chasing deer, squirrels, going for car rides, etc., etc,.) is the most frequent behavior a dog can perform so due to this, the Premack Principle is somewhat related to the Drive principle, but Drive is a more precise understanding of the learning phenomenon. It elucidates an underlying dynamic while modern learning theory, such as the Premack principle, is exclusively focused on reinforcement. For one thing, heel, sit, down, stay and come-when-called are pre-programmed actions that naturally emerge from the Prey Drive which is why wolves don’t need to learn these behaviors, they are born with them. The behaviors need polishing and refinement in terms of coordinated, collectivized behavior, and experience catalyzes these behaviors, but it doesn’t reinforce them. Thus NDT unlike the Premack way of looking at things is not driven by the concept of reinforcement. If the Premack Principle were a strong statement about the phenomenon of learning, then cats could be trained to perform with the joy and enthusiasm as dogs and ancient man would have not been able to connect, hunt and herd with dogs tens of thousands of years before the science on learning got started.

In the video on the Premack principle Dunbar makes a classic error in thinking when one thinks in terms of reinforcement as opposed to Drive.

Dunbar suggests that using this principle, a dog that’s not particularly into playing tug can be encouraged in this direction by being rewarded with something he does like, for example a belly rub if that’s his thing, as the dog begins to show some interest in playing tug. But since there is a natural progression to the unfolding of the prey drive, this “reward” is actually an interruption of that cycle and because by definition belly rubs and cookies cannot conduct as much emotion as the prey drive, these reinforced behaviors will ultimately become a bottleneck in a moment of stress and the dog will become distracted from the tug toy when one needs him focused on it the most.

The Premack principle is vague because it doesn’t identify the precise workings, the internal dynamo, that is guiding the learning phenomenon in dogs. For example, there is an inverse relationship between emotion and stress with Drive being the confluence of these two types of attractive forces. Drive is emotion plus stress so as to render intensity and focus and in this way emotion as energy can run in either direction so that the experience of stress becomes a reward in its own right. Compression and resistance become arousing rather than binding up the works. Furthermore, Drive has “hooks” onto which other like-oriented individuals can sync up through. Because of this syncopation, things that we normally think of as being negative for a dog can be swept up in the wash and become part of the drive experience for the dog. Being synchronized within an overarching flow configuration means that the release of stress can make something that is normally noxious, suddenly be perceived of as conductive. For example, using the food via the pushing technique, and then prey objects, I elicit in a dog the heel, sit, down and recall actions as an expression of its drive. Creating this flow configuration (dog aligned and synchronized with my movements at high energy) is the foundation. In the video Dunbar is kind of saying something like this when he notes that sitting as preliminary to playing, means that sitting can be a prediction of imminent play, in Premack logic this means that high frequency is being used as a reward for low frequency. But the reason anything is high frequency is because of a state of alignment and synchronization with others. This is why bomb dogs can work for food treats under high stress conditions, whereas other animals cannot be trained to do so. The food use in the bomb dog’s training developed and heightened syncopation and this is the motivation. The dog doesn’t work because the eating of food is a high frequency behavior.

For example, most of my work is with problem dogs and quite often grooming or nail clipping is a trigger for their aggression. So I will create a heeling imprint, but since being a problem dog means the dog is always holding back until triggered, the dog won’t invest everything he’s got into this imprint because he’s holding back Deep Inner Stress as an emergency reserve. Then I’ll tackle the grooming trigger head on and resolve it via the Table technique, afterwards I hop him back on the ground and we do the push, follow and then heel routine. The dog is now investing DIS into this imprint and heeling becomes “high frequency.” (Of course calling something high frequency doesn’t really mean anything. Anything a dog invests his Deep Inner Stress into becomes a high frequency behavior.)

Another version of this was taught to me by Johannes Grewe during my introduction the German Police manner of working dogs. On the training field with a number of highly motivated young German shepherds (in other words through sound breeding and development they all invested their DIS into their bite work) he would walk before us swinging the bite sleeve and making provocative sounds, moves and gestures which drove the dogs into a frenzy. Then we would wait a moment, Johannes would be standing still, and we would channel all that energy into the obedience exercises which now the dogs performed with all the exuberance and urgency they had just manifested in wanting to get to the bite sleeve.

Deep Inner Stress, that last .01% that is held back as an emergency reserve and therefore serves as a tuning metric, is the key to high and low frequency and developing a dog so that he invests this into a prey object of our choosing, is the key to all learning in dogs.


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Published January 10, 2013 by Kevin Behan
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  1. […] A nail trimming: inspired by natural dog trainer Kevin Behan’s recent blog post, in which he describes using a nail trimming to bring out the energy in a repressed (and therefore […]

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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