Sunday, January 17, 2016

"Good Dog!" - Is there such a thing as BAD PRAISE?

We've all done it - absently reached down, ruffled our dog's ears, and said, "Good dog!"

So?  Don't dogs like to be petted?  Isn't it good stress relief for both humans and dogs?  I'm just trying to praise my dog for doing what I asked.  What's wrong with that?

Nothing - as long as you actually meant the praise and/or touch.  But so often during my training classes (and yes, I'll admit it - when I'm working with my own private dogs as well), I see people do this and I see dogs cringe.

Yes.  You read that right.  They cringe.


I think it's because dogs are always right there, 'in the moment.'  Whereas we humans can be mentally flitting all over the place - it's our own form of time travel.

At any given moment, our body might be at dog training class, and our mouth might be saying "Good dog."  But our mind is at yesterday's business meeting, or off in the future - composing the grocery shopping list for this evening after dog training class, or any one of a dozen other places & times.

Maybe, we're just listening to the trainer's instructions:  The trainer said to praise my dog. So I did!  What's the problem?

The problem is that we're being good human students in class and doing what we're told - but that still means we're disconnected from the dog, because the praise was a knee-jerk response to the trainer's instructions - not an actual acknowledgment of a job well done on the dog's part.

And because dogs are so in-tune with more than just words and more than just touch, this can get us in trouble.  The dog may begin to tune out your praise; may begin to move away from the ear-ruffle, or head pat.

If the dog is actively avoiding praise - it's clearly no longer a positive thing in the dog's eyes, even though you meant it to be!

Think of it like this:

Forced, knee-jerk, memorized, or obligatory interactions don't actually feel very good to humans either.

That disconnected verbal praise and/or pat you just gave your dog might feel a little like:

1.  The rushed, obligatory 'goodbye peck' from your spouse on the way out the door to work.  Now, don't get me wrong - if you're genuinely connected during that physical contact, that's great.  But if you're each thinking of all the work that must get done today; and neither of you is really taking time to connect, but are just 'going through the motions' - you can feel the disconnection in the kiss!

2.  The "Go hug Aunt Martha" hug.  Most of us have some childhood memory of yearly visits with a very distant relative who either smelled funny, or hugged 'too hard', or pinched our cheeks, etc.  How many kids actually take away happiness from those interactions?

3.  The 'Office Hug'.  Again, most of us have some casual acquaintances who are simply way more physically affectionate that we are.  These are the people who hug everyone - and I mean everyone - they meet, regardless of how long they've known them.

Of course, all of the above human interactions are intended to be at the very least polite, and at best quite friendly.  And of course, none of us is permanently, emotionally scarred for going through these  somewhat 'fake' interactions.

But....  Would any of us see them as motivational?  Are they a strong positive influence in our lives?  Probably not!

The same is true for knee-jerk, obligatory touching of dogs.   You need to match the type of touch, where you touch, and when you touch to what's going on in the moment for you and your dog.

How about verbal praise?  Again, I often see this fall short of the mark during training classes.  Dogs absolutely tune into much more than the words we're saying - they tune into the tone of voice, inflection, volume, etc.  And they tune into our body language and facial expressions when we are praising them.

So - if we deliver a flat, cursory, "Good dog" for praise, we'll probably get flat, zombie-like responses from our dog.

So what do you want, Trainer Jen?  Should we all turn into Mickey-Mouse voiced Varsity Cheerleaders for every sit our dog does?

NO!  No!  Nooooooo.  I say again, NO!

Just like with petting - What you say, and how you say it to your dog should be about the individual moment you're sharing.  And it should be authentic to the situation, the individual dog's temperament, and your communication style.

What does that mean?  Well, I'll give some examples:

A Lesson in Dignity:   I had a pit bull/Labrador cross in training several years ago.  This was a big, stately dog.  An adult rescue dog, he just exuded self-confidence and dignity.  His owner was a smart, professional woman.  But - whenever she praised the dog in class (and I assume at home), she would put on the silly, baby-talk, Mickey Mouse Club Cheerleader voice.

Quite frankly, the dog hated it.  If he could have stuck his finger down his throat and imitated gagging noises, he would have.  And his entire demeanor while working with her was one of sheer tolerance, but not enjoyment.

Whenever I worked with him, I simply praised him in the same tone of voice I would praise an adult co-worker.  My "Good job. Nice choice.  Good work." statements were genuine - without affectation.  When praised in a way that spoke to his dignity, this dog beamed.  He worked hard - he even wiggled his butt in puppy-ish excitement for a brief second or two.

Take - away lesson:  Not all dogs want to be baby-talked to, or squealed at.  Some do.  Some don't.  Some like it at some times and not others.  It's your job to figure out the right praise for the moment.

A Lesson in Authenticity:  What if your dog is one of the ones that likes baby talk?  But you're a 6' 5" tall man with a deep voice and some dignity of your own?  Again, I can't stress enough how important it is to be genuine and connected to your dog with your praise and affection.  Dogs know when we're lying to them, so your best bet is to be honest with your voice!  They will sense true connection and genuine praise, even if it's not in baby talk.

Lesson Three - Dogs are Situational!   I've also found out through the years, just how important it is not only to match the praise to the individual dog's style, and to your own genuine style of talking, but also to the situation.

There are times when you or your dog may be really excited with an achievement.  That moment of 'getting it right' or 'doing it perfectly' washes you both in a flood of happiness.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a full-blown praise party at these moments.  If you feel it, and the dog feels it, go with it!

Likewise, if a dog is anxious about something, or is struggling, whipping out the streamers and confetti (in effect, raising the energy around the situation) may not be the best plan.  It all depends on the moment.
Bringing it all together

"Good dog!" and patting the top of your dog's head gets old.  By all means, it's okay to say it once in a while.  But better yet, say what you're actually thinking at the moment.

If a dog has responded more slowly than we'd like, or even needed a correction to bring about a response, but they are now doing what we asked, then we should acknowledge that.

But do we need to whip out a Mickey-Mouse voiced praise party?  Nope.  For me, if I am feeling frustrated, I might just say, "Thanks."  That word is authentic - it doesn't tell them I am happy about the struggle it took to get them to sit, or stay, or whatever, but it does acknowledge that they're now doing it.

On the other hand, if a dog has accomplished a new task that I know is particularly difficult ( like a pup being able to master the 'leave it' command with food), my praise and my words may be much warmer - "Goood work!"  or "Good choice!"

Match your words, your tone of praise to the individual dog, your own authentic style, and the situation and you'll find your dog looking up at you, truly connecting with you more and more often.

The same rings with praise in the form of touch, eye contact and body language.

Stop.  Look.  Listen.

Not sure if you're guilty of giving out disconnected, or 'fake' praise and petting?  It's okay - we all do it from time to time.

But here are some pointers on how to avoid it:

1.  When you praise/pet your dog - look at his reaction.  Is he happy about it?  Does he acknowledge it?  Or does he move away from you, or look away from you?  (Keep in mind - your dog doesn't need to stare at you like a deranged maniac all the time.  Pay attention to the whole picture of what your dog is saying.)

2.  If you and your dog are in a rhythm and things are going well, remember she may not always turn into a wiggly mass of puppyness at your feet when you praise.  That's okay.  She may just be 'in the groove' and her acknowledgment of your touch or praise may be in the form of a brief look, small tail wag, or other small signal.

Take the time to stop, look, and listen.  Is the dog actually enjoying your tone of voice or touch?  And keep in mind, different dogs have different preferences for where and how you pet them or verbally praise them.

When interacting with your dog through touch or voice, you have so many options.  Dogs tune in to our facial expressions, our body language, the amount of tension in our muscles and our voices, our eye contact, where and how we're touching them - we have so many different ways to talk to them.

Take the opportunity to really connect.  Communicate.  Tell 'em how you feel.  It's okay, they're dogs - some of the least judgmental creatures in the universe!

Along those same lines, what about cookies for reward or praise?  Well, I'll leave that to another post (coming soon, I promise!)...but chew on this food for thought:

The recent cookie craze in training (and yes - I've been on the cookie bandwagon for some 7 or 8 years myself), may actually be interfering with how you and your dog communicate.  Granted, after a long day of work, when you're tired and your mind is elsewhere, it's easier to give the dog a cookie for sitting on command...and once in a while that's probably okay.

But I fear relying too much on cookies, toys, or other external, tangible rewards is creating several generations of humans and dogs who don't ever actually connect - they just exchange behaviors for rewards....

Jennifer Hime is a canine behavior consultant and trainer, and the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She can be contacted through her website at;

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Uphill Battle to Save a Dying Breed - DO something about it.

We are losing a very important type of dog in this country.  They used to be seen regularly - but they got a bad reputation somehow, it seems.  And now they've all but disappeared.

I'm not talking about German Shepherds, or Pit Bulls.   Nope - not Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers, Chihuahuas, Terriers of any sort, Greyhounds, nor any of the Retrievers.  Not Poodles, or Great Danes.  Not Border Collies, Chow Chows, nor Pointers of any kind.

In fact, I'm not talking about any one specific breed or group - but instead an entire community of dogs and their humans.

I am talking about the well-behaved, socially adept, well-adjusted dog and its owner.

Now, before you get offended - scoffing, sputtering, and jumping up and down to defend your own lovely pooch and his or her behavior - let's look at the facts, as seen through this dog trainer's eyes:

FACT:  In the past few years, I have seen a sharp rise in the number of cases that contact myself or at least one other trainer about aggression in their family pets.  In fact, the number of aggression or re-activity cases we see at Front Range K9 Academy has increased by 400%!

FACT:  More and more often when I spot a dog out in public, the dog is completely out of control - oblivious to the existence of its owner, let alone that there are things to be doing other than dragging about at the end of a retractable leash, peeing on everything, jumping on strangers, lunging and barking at other dogs - the list goes on and on.

FACT:  To make matters worse, the humans attached to these oblivious, unruly dogs seem to think that this state of affairs is completely normal.
Image result for dog pulling leash
Dare I say it? ...They think it's natural (and even worse), appropriate dog behavior.

 I suspect some of these same humans think that kids yelling and screaming and throwing things in public places like movie theaters and restaurants are also normal, appropriate behaviors.

Think about that.  An entire group of humans thinks this is just how dogs are; just what they do.

That appalls me.

Not only because I'm a dog trainer.  But because I am a dog lover.  A dog enthusiast.  A dog aficionado, if you will.  Anyone who knows me, knows that I live, eat, and breathe dogs and their behavior.

To see so many dogs bouncing off their environment, their owners, and each other with no help, no information, no communication from their humans is just sad.

No matter how you cut it, dogs are socially driven creatures that are simply happier when they have the same things that human children (another socially driven creature) need:

  • Information
  • Boundaries
  • Communication

These 3 things are missing in too many of America's dogs' lives.  We are letting them down.

If you're one of the people that this post is mildly (or even extremely) offensive to...

Or if you didn't know that dogs pulling on leashes, barking and lunging, jumping up, etc. are not normal, appropriate behaviors...

...DO something about it.

I don't care how you accomplish it - cookies, clickers, remote collars, old school methods, new school methods, scientific methods....Read a dog training book.  Or several.  Watch some YouTube videos.  Contact a training school and enroll your dog.

Just wake up and DO something about it.

How any one person chooses to train, socialize, or bring up their children or their dogs is not the subject of this post (I'll save that for another day).


To those of you who are smuggly nodding your heads  - don't be too hasty.

Just because you took your dog to puppy class, or read about and trained the basics at home doesn't mean you're off the hook.  Over half of the dogs I work with each year have already graduated from some sort of training - sometimes 'with honors,' which makes me scratch my head, since they're often coming to see me for major aggression or other behavioral issues.  But I digress...

Your commitment to feeding and caring for the physical needs of your dog is for the life of the dog, right?

Well, your commitment to the mental, emotional, and behavioral health of your dog doesn't end when you get your puppy school graduation certificate.

Dogs are incredibly intelligent animals who need continued engagement and education from their humans for their entire lives.

You wouldn't stop communicating with and teaching your children as soon as they finished preschool or kindergarten!  Or at least I hope you wouldn't!

If you've already gotten the ball rolling, that's great - now your next step is to keep training.  Think of new, fun challenges for your dog and yourself.

I know that dogs who behave well are still out there.  I know they are - The trainers at Front Range K9 taught a little over 750 classes last year, and worked on teaching both dogs and their owners how to navigate a world where the dogs often seem to be as poorly behaved as many of today's human children.

I began this post saying that this 'dying breed' of dog (the well behaved companion) is disappearing.  And sadly, that is the truth.

Somewhere along the way, the word 'discipline' has gotten a bad reputation.  'Discipline' has become synonymous with 'punishment.'

But when we look at the definition of discipline, we see the following:

"training that corrects, molds, or perfects the mental faculties or moral character"

"the ability to keep working at something that is difficult"

"an activity that is done regularly as a way of training oneself to do something or to improve behavior"

None of these definitions appear to be bad ideas - for either dogs or humans.  We seem to have forgotten that just because a dog is made to behave at home and in public, doesn't mean the dog is unhappy, or the owner is mean.

I hope the next time you see a dog out in public you stop and look - not only to determine the breed, or to see how cute it is.... but really look at the dog's demeanor.

Is it truly happy?   Or is it frantically trying to figure out a world that is overstimulating - a world that would make much more sense if it's human slowed down and taught it how to behave?

Jennifer Hime is the owner and training director of Front Range K9 Academy in Wheat Ridge, CO.  She has been working with dogs professionally for over 25 years.  She can be reached through her website at