Grandma's cookies

“Eat up all your vegetables and you can have dessert!”

Sitting anxiously at the table of Yaya’s house, I remember bouncing in my seat and kicking my feet, waiting in harrowed anticipation for my grandmother to return from the kitchen. The rooms smelled sweet with vanilla and cinnamon from whatever magic pot or pan she had going and I couldn’t wait for a serving of anything–cookies, puddings, pies– it really didn’t matter to me. Yaya’s cooking was the very best and I had cleaned the plate as well as I could with my clumsy, young motor skills.

After all, I had to eat all my veggies before I could have dessert. How many of us would be surprised to find that grandma used a popular dog training technique to do what she thought was best for us?

shiba inu with treat


This week, I spent some time trying to teach our new puppy to come reliably when called, no matter the situation. Buttons isn’t exactly the brightest crayon in the box, but is slowly picking up on the tricks we are working on. Both of the Pekingese and Shih tzu breeds that he’s mixed with are known for being horrendously independent, stubborn and difficult to train–not unlike a rebellious teenager.

I want to make sure that even if I do not have a bag of treats, or if he was getting into a dangerous situation, I could call him back on the turn of a dime without question or fuss. This can be a bit difficult if your dog is in the middle of playing and thinks his new playmate is more fun than listening to your voice, or that tree on your walk is just begging to be his next potty spot.

One of the ways to train this–and to make sure other tricks don’t require the rattle of a treat bag–to use the Premack Principle, or “Grandma’s Law,” as it is often nicknamed. The dog needs to do something for you before they rush off to do what they want. In Buttons’ case, we let him drag around a leash and would interrupt his ability to play and call him back to us. If he wanted to continue playing, he had to do what he was asked.

This is used often on children, but many teens and adults can be found following the same Premack Principle in their daily lives. “Finish work before going out,” and “mow the lawn before going swimming,” are example motivators.

Thankfully, my dogs all know their names individually, so it was easier to tell the older two to continue playing while their new sibling was recalled. Another way to use the Premack Principle is to toss a treat just out of the dog’s reach and not allow him to get it until the desired action is performed. To say the very least, our head-strong Buttons was livid at this prospect and bucked around like a wild horse for a minute or two… at least when someone was watching.

Twins baking brownies

Tempted and tormented by terrors.

My other two dogs gleefully took the chance to frolic and redouble their efforts in play in response to his tantrums. Both of them already knew the game we were playing with the puppy and that he would be allowed to play if he just did as he was asked. I started with just a quick “Sit”–one of the very fist tricks Buttons started with. Normally the response was automatic and required no thought and eventually would work my way up to the harder “Come.” It took a while, but he eventually worked his way past the tantrums to hastily perform the required actions. Buttons seemed as anxious as I was for Yaya’s cooking those many years back, waiting for the release. He danced and wiggled in place before fleeing to join his friends.

Like Yaya did for me many years ago, I am teaching the building blocks of patience, goals and motivation–just with a slightly different kind of cookie.

dog treat cookies

Only for the good doggies in our lives.