Be sure your praise helps and doesn’t hurt
Here’s one that trips up so many! How could praise hurt? How could telling your dog “Good boy!” mess him up? Why on earth should I be concerned about praise and when I share it?
Imagine you’re taking a test. It’s a tough one. You’re concentrating as hard as you can to find the answers and do a good job. You’re focused…hard! And there I am, standing behind you, my hands on your shoulders, saying in a super happy, revved up tone “Man, you’re killing this test! Of man, you got this!! You are SO rocking this test!!”
Would that be helpful? (And even if I was just whispering it, would it still be distracting?)
Let me be clear, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use praise to clarify that your dog is doing a good job, or that he just completed an awesome exercise. BUT you need to pick your moments carefully and smartly…and you need to be conscious of delivery.
So often I see owners causing their dogs to make mistakes by praising (or over praising) at the wrong time. The dog has just sat, downed, gone to place, or not jumped on aunt Martha, and then the owner lays the celebratory stuff on the dog…and the dog messes up whatever he just did right. He breaks position, or jumps on aunt Martha. And then what? He gets in trouble. He gets corrected.
Personally, I’ve had numerous critiques on my Heel video for not praising the dog as I’m teaching him the position of Heel. But folks don’t realize, the dog is hanging by a thread. He’s just barely containing himself and concentrating as hard as he can. (He’s taking the test!!) Me praising him would just make him speed up and get corrected.
Praise typically adds juice to the proceedings. It amps the dog, gets him more excited and riled up. And that’s fine when you want it. Want a fast recall? Lay it on him. Want some speed, motion, and action? Praise the bejesus out of him! (Especially if you’re doing a sport or performance or play activity.) Conversely, if you want calm, if you want your dog to hold a position (sit, down, place…or even heel), or you just want a more relaxed and chilled out dog, then either refrain from praise, OR make it super flat and neutral. Even a touch can be neutral (a finger on the head) or a juice-fest (fast, excited petting).
The trick is to be conscious of your interactions and what they bring to the table. You need to be aware that praise can be a powerful distractor and disturber – that’s it’s not simply a benign interaction – but a tool to be used with skill and care. Use it consciously and judiciously to help your dog succeed at what you’re trying to accomplish. And remember, sometimes the very best, most helpful praise, is none at all.
P.S. If you’re a chronic praiser – meaning you tell your dog “Good boy/girl!” for everything they do, you’re diminishing the value of your praise and interactions. Anything the dog receives constantly (and for nothing particularly special) becomes just about valueless. It’s just noise your dog hears incessantly. And on top of that, it presents you as a soft, too-eager-to-please, door-mat of a presence, that is just ripe for the taking advantage of.