The Power of Premack: A Recall Repaired – by Sarah Owings

May 25, 2012 at 7:41 pm 1 comment

This is PART 3 of a new series of guests posts by the trainers at, an online (clicker) dog training workshop that Boogie and I were enrolled in last year. This continues from PART 1: Premack Pearls and PART 2:Station Training.  Read my personal review of the Cyber Dog Online course in this earlier blog post. 

by Sarah Owings, KPA CTP

True confessions of a professional dog trainer…If there are big distractions like birds, cats,  squirrels, or the next door neighbor making noise in his yard, our twelve year old poodle-mix, Maya, still isn’t always all that great at coming when called. However, thanks to the power of the Premack Principle, I can safely say that she is at least worlds better than she used to be.

Maya is a dog who has only recently learned to appreciate food rewards. Once free-fed with a bowl of boring kibble left out all day long, Maya used to not only be an extremely picky eater,  she also made it abundantly clear that (unlike our other dog whose whole universe seems to revolve around whatever delectable morsel I might happen to have stashed away in my pocket at any given time), she would much rather chase a cat or a squirrel than eat even high value stuff like salmon, chicken, hamburger or cheese.

To make matters worse, not only was Maya difficult to motivate, my mom had also inadvertently poisoned her recall because back before she knew better, she used to yell at Maya for barking in the yard and, when Maya ignored her, my mom would stomp outside, snatch her by the collar, haul her back inside, and lock her in the house.

Not surprisingly, by the time I took over Maya’s training, she appeared to go “deaf” the instant I said her name, and would run off and even actively evade my hands if I reached for her. She would also deliberately ignore any food I offered her at such times too, clearly suspicious that I was attempting to entrap her.

So, how do you teach a non food-motivated dog to LOVE to come when you call–even away from an exciting activity like barking at the fence? Well, you Premack-it! That’s what you do! By establishing a new pattern where I released Maya back to her preferred activity each time AFTER she offered even the tiniest bit of focus, eventually she began to trust that I wasn’t there to grab her and end the fun, and she began to look at me more often. Additionally, as you can see in the video, an interesting side benefit to this work was that Maya also began to eat the food I offered her too! That means that not only did I end up Premacking her recalls, I ended up Premacking her acceptance of food rewards as well!

More than curbing the barking, my main goal with Maya was to rebuild trust. Because she had no real problems with aggression towards people or other dogs, and because our yard was a safe place to allow her to practice the barking behavior, I made the choice to begin our Premack sessions off-leash right next to the fence. (Side note: I do not recommend allowing dogs with serious dog-dog aggression or dog-human aggression to fence-fight). I also took video so I could measure Maya’s progress more objectively. If the desired behavior of looking at me all on her own without nagging or prompting increased in frequency and duration over time, then I knew I had hit upon the correct reinforcer.

One Year Later… Maya is still a dedicated barker. That’s just the kind of dog she is. However, she is now much more likely to only bark a few times and then come find me. If I have a treat handy, I typically reward her for this good choice. But even if I don’t have a treat, she gets praise and/or a favorite butt or belly scratch, followed by the now ritualized release cue “OKAY! Go bark!” What is interesting is that sometimes Maya does go right back outside to bark for a minute or two, but more often than not these day she seems content to stay with me instead.  When she’s obsessing about something in the yard such as the neighbor or an evil squirrel taunting her up on the telephone wires, I can walk over, stand 5-10′ from her and get offered eye-contact and then a pretty decent recall in just a few minutes. But best of all now, approximately eight times out of ten, I can stand all the way at the back door, 50-90′ away from the distraction, call out a cheerful “Maya HERE!”, and within 20 seconds she comes trotting right inside with eyes bright and happy, and her tail wagging. Now that’s progress!

Entry filed under: Guest Post by Cyberdog Online, Training.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. Kristine  |  May 29, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    What an awesome way to train recalls! I’d never thought of this before. Recalls are something we struggle with all the time. Not because my dog isn’t food motivated but because she is motivated by all things edible and inedible. I could wave around steak but if she knows there is tasty mud under her feet, the steak isn’t enough to get her moving. She’ll stick with what she has in front of her. Perhaps by applying Premack in a similar fashion, by releasing her to eat the mud the second she even looks in my direction, we could work around this. Thanks for the great tips and congratulations on your success with Maya!


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