Good is Like Thank You

dog training norman oklahoma

One of the most important aspects of dog training is how and when to use praise. Too much, and you risk overexciting the dog and can actually cause him to break command (for which you will then have to correct him). Too little, and you miss an opportunity for clarity about desired behavior. 

The right amount of praise will depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to your dog's temperament, state of mind, and level of training. The way that you think about your dog also bears some effect on your dog's reaction. Here are some things to think about: 

1. Make sure your praise doesn't sound like a love letter. 

The most important gift we can give our dogs is clear communication. And clear communication means matching our tone and energy to the message we want to send.

I get it: you are your dog's biggest fan. Perhaps your dog appears in your Facebook profile picture or has his own Instagram. Maybe you've written your dog actual love letters. You LIKE enacting the daily drama of "Who's a good boy?" (the world may never know!!). If you're a dog person, then you love your dog - simple.  

I would never want to take that away from you! But I do want you to realize that part of loving your dog is communicating with him properly, and too much praise can get in the way of clear communication.

We snuggle, pet, and praise dogs because it makes us feel good to see them happy. We like seeing our bond reflected in their wagging tails. Psychologically, we use this kind of interaction to bolster the inward belief that we are kind, benevolent, and worthy of love ourselves.It's not necessarily a bad thing. For the most part, most of us ARE kind, benevolent, and worthy of love. For the most part, the dogs LIKE it.

But we run into trouble when lavish praise defines your entire repertoire of communication with your dog. Why? Because praise excites dogs, and excited dogs make bad choices (which we quickly find ourselves frustrated with). Additionally, too much praise sends the message that you are a soft, easy pliable person.  I've seen dogs abandon annoying, nasty behaviors JUST because their owners stopped talking them so damn much. This stuff matters. 

2. Reserve praise for training only (at least for a time). 

Most of us praise our dogs too much for doing nothing at all. It's one of the first things I address when my clients and I begin training. 

If you're in the habit of praising your dog as you pass through the room or during other non-training scenarios, stop doing that. Reserve praise for walks and focused training sessions. Your dog has no reason to work for praise if it's freely available. It also sends mixed signals about what exactly is "good" about whatever he is doing. Does "good" refer to me laying on the couch? Licking my paw? Sniffing the chair? Remember, "Good" should simply be a marker word to signal job well done.  It should not be about eliciting an emotional reaction from your dog, or about fulfilling your OWN need to  "love on" a being other than yourself. 

Note: The first few months of training should be immersive; all day should be training and free roaming should be eliminated. If you aren't available or willing to influence and give feedback about your dog's choices, you should put him away in the crate until you are. This is not forever, this is just for us to lay a foundation of "yes" and "no."

3. Good is like "thank you." 

Make your praise sound like "Thank you." When you have your spouse grab something for you on the way home from work, you don't fall all over yourself and schedule a vow renewal. You don't give your child a trophy every time he cleans his room. When a friend pays for your coffee, you don't make a documentary film dedicated to their greatness. 
What do you do? You say thank you. When your dog successfully completes a command (or stays in command), you should simply say "Good" in the exact same tone you'd thank the cashier at the gas station.  If  your dog is really showing a lot of effort and nailing his commands, or if he has something historically very hard for him, you can even offer an impressed "Good."  

If your dog breaks command or gets excited, then it was too much for him. For some dogs, the word "Good" is too tightly associated arousal - they are conditioned to wiggle upon hearing it. For those dogs, I recommend the marker word be "Yes," or something similar. 

Frances Whalen