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  • Writer's pictureAislinn Evans-Wilday

Let's Talk About... Praise. How and When To Use Praise When Training Your Dog.

I love praise as a reward for dogs - I don't see enough of it, but in this post I'm going to tell you why I think owners need to be careful about how they use it.

All dogs are individual and have a favourite reward or a reward that they work best for. For some it's the obvious reward of food and treats and in this camp are also the treat motivated dogs who aren't food motivated; by which I mean, they'll work for treats but you can't get away with rewarding them with their everyday kibble (Barney falls into this category). Then you have others who are toy and game motivated and their favourite reward is a toy like a tennis ball or a quick game of tuggy - you see this a lot in agility training and it's a great way to reinforce 'drive' in your dog but that's not a discussion for today.

Then there's the sensitive dogs. The dogs who are the topic of today's post. These are the dogs for whom praise is their favourite reward. They might turn their nose up at treats and toys but tell them they're a good boy and they turn into putty in your hands. I'm currently loose lead training a malamute x husky who is very praise motivated and it makes our sessions together very sweet. Now that we've progressed onto the part of the training where I'm training the owner and not the dog, it warms my heart to see this boys tail wag every time his owner tells him he's a good boy. It's too cute.

a husky smiling

So why do I think owners need to be careful about using praise as a reward?

Well, it's all to do with timing, as so much of dog training is. The mistake I see owners making over and over again when they're praising their dogs on walks is that they are inadvertently praising the wrong behaviours.

If praise is being used as a reward, then it's important that your using your phrase of "yes" or "good boy / girl" to mark the behaviour you want to encourage.

You should be praising calm walking, connection/focus on you, eye contact.

This is where I see the mistakes; I see owners walking down the street absentmindedly repeating the words "good boy" over and over again without actually realising that in that moment their dog is distracted by another dog on the other side of the road. They have inadvertently just rewarded their dog for ignoring them and paying attention to the other dog instead.

I especially see this during loose lead training where timing is particularly important. So often owners will think that they are praising loose lead walking when actually their dog is starting to accelerate away from them. This is why I urge owners to pay really close attention to their dog when they're praising them, so that they aren't accidentally rewarding the wrong behaviours.

a dog looking happy

But it's hard.

Timing in training is the hardest thing to get right and it's where so many owners fall down. It's why I steer away from clicker training personally, because I don't trust my own timing to get it juuuuust right. Every time I have attempted clicker training, I have instinctively praised the dog verbally instead of using the clicker and then I click too late and it becomes a whole thing. I can use verbal praise at the right time every time because I naturally get excited when the dog gets it right and that always comes out as "Yes!!! Good boy!!!" As well as teaching all the tips and tricks my clients need to get their dogs walking nicely, I also spend a lot of time drilling correct timing into them.

It's also incredibly hard to stop telling your dog they're a good girl / boy when you've been doing it for so long! I'm not telling you that you should stop doing it, but I do encourage you to think about how you use praise and how often you're telling your dog that they're a good girl / boy. Are you mindful of when your praising your dog? Are you actually praising behaviours you want to encourage or is it a throw away comment?

As I said at the beginning, I love praise as a reward for dogs. It's a lovely way to bond with them and keeps training sessions positive and enjoyable for them but there is such thing as too much of a good thing. When phrases like "good boy / girl" are used without thought, they lose their impact so while they are an excellent training tool, overuse in the wrong setting will, at best, lessen their effect as a reward and at worst, inadvertently reward your dog for the wrong behaviours.

a dog gazing up at their owner on a walk

In short, don't say it if you don't mean it!

There is another classic scenario where praise is used in the "wrong" way and we'll look at that next time but for now, happy walking with your good boys and girls.

Forever paws,

Aislinn 🐾

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