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;

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