Premack Principle and Dead Raccoons

Rolling in something stinky

The blissful expression on her face says it all...

Recent “lightbulb moment”: NILIF (Nothing in Life is Free program) = Premack principle. They’re the same thing.

Our most recent successful application of Premack has been dealing with Layla’s recall when she’s off leash and finds something stinky. She loves to roll in stinky stuff. Poop, carcasses, rotting wood, pond scum, moldy leaf litter, it doesn’t matter as long as it reeks. Her recall in this situation has always been a bit spotty, maybe 60%. A few months ago, I decided to start Premacking her recall. If I see her rolling in something stinky, I call her once. If she comes immediately, I instantly release her to go back to the stinky thing and roll some more (she’s already getting a bath, what does it matter?). If she doesn’t come immediately, I walk her down without saying anything and quietly leash her up. After just a few months of this (with very few repetitions, since I don’t allow her to roll in stinky stuff if I can catch her before she goes down), I’m happy to report that her recall is close to 100%. There’s still some work to do with latency – she finishes the roll she’s currently engaged in before disengaging to come to me – but I’m already seeing improvements there too.

Rolling in something smelly


I learned pretty quickly that I need to add the collar grab as part of her recall, after a few fly-by recalls where she circled me and immediately ran back to the stinky thing. This is now a standard part of our off-leash recalls, since it’s important for me to be able to keep her with me once she returns. Ideally I’d like to fade this eventually and have more complete verbal control, but since she has a long history of rewarded collar grabs, it’s not a big deal. I’m gradually adding some variability into this training technique as she progresses. Sometimes, I instantly release her to go back to the stinky thing without even doing a collar grab. Sometimes, I ask for a few obedience behaviors before I release her back. Sometimes, we go on to play leave it/drop it/take it games with the stinky thing (what else is a raccoon carcass for?). Sometimes, I leash her up when she comes to me, feed her about ten treats in a row, start to walk away from the stinky thing, then suddenly unclip her leash and release her. The first time I did this last one, she did a double take!

The best thing about all of this is the transfer of value. The Premack principle allows you to transfer the value of the thing you’re using as a reward to the behavior that precedes the reward.

Yes, this means that our off-leash recalls are as good as a dead raccoon. And if you’re Layla, that’s pretty amazing.


1 Comment

Filed under Layla, Training

One response to “Premack Principle and Dead Raccoons

  1. I’ve been premacking recalls, too, with the ability to be running off leash. If she comes, I send her back out to run like an idiot. 🙂 Since we live in the city, there aren’t many “run like an idiot” moments in her life, so this is a great reward!

    We’ve been doing this since January, and true to the definition of the principle, running off isn’t so valuable any more. In fact, the last couple of times I let her off leash, she heeled… So I rewarded her healing with some offleash running time, and she ran, but not very far, and then came back to heel. In essence, when the leash comes off, she gets closer.

    Thanks for the great post!

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