The Best Way to Praise a Dog

Picture of a well trained dog

Praise can be a highly effective way to motivate certain behaviors in your dog. Research shows that both humans and dogs are inspired to learn new skills when they receive a positive affirmation for their efforts. Praise can be given in more ways than simply verbal cues such as “Good boy!” or “Yes!” Other ways to express praise for your dog include a walk in your dog’s favorite locale, a rousing game of fetch in the backyard, a trip in the car to get an ice cream at McDonalds, or even just a new toy or bone to enjoy. If you’re looking to train your dog using praise only, what are the best ways to do it?

When is the Best Time to Use Praise in Training My Dog?

Though dogs don’t typically understand everything we say, they can, over time, learn to associate a word with a specific response or action. If you tell your dog he’s a good boy in an excited voice, your dog will soon come to learn from your vocal inflection and your facial expression that the words “good boy” mean that you are pleased. When a dog does something that pleases you, chances are he will repeat the behavior in the future hoping for the same response. With this in mind, there is no question that verbal praise is an especially effective tool in the training process with your dog.

However, when it comes to using praise with your dog, timing is key. If you want your dog to associate a certain word with a certain response, it is important that your praise immediately follow the desired action. By delaying the words of praise too long, your dog can become confused as to the message you are trying to convey, and the learning process can be disrupted. This concept also works with rewards in the form of treats. If you ask your dog for a sit and he responds by following through with the commanded action, you should immediately reward him for his acknowledgement of your request with the cue word or treat. The connection is then formed between the given response and the offered reward, a key component to your dog’s learning and the development of new and improved habits.

What Do I Do if My Dog Does Not Give the Desired Response During Training?

One of the most important fundamentals of dog training is to not reward any behavior that is less than what you have asked for. If you ask your dog to sit and instead he continues to stand and look up at you with puppy dog eyes, it is important that you not give him a treat or a word of praise no matter how cute he may look. Rewarding actions you don’t want to see again teaches the dog that disobeying you will not only be tolerated; it will also be rewarded.

One of the most common mistakes in dog training is inadvertently encouraging behaviors you don’t want to see again in your dog. The ideal example is this: your dog is jumping up and pawing at your leg to get your attention, and you choose to pick him up. You may have picked the dog up to stop a behavior you find annoying or unpleasant, but in your dog’s eyes, you have given him what he wants. This simple reinforcement will teach your dog that if this behavior is repeated in the future, he will be picked up again, and just like that a bad habit is formed. If your dog exhibits a behavior you’d rather he not, the best solution to this problem is to give your dog no reaction at all. When your dog learns that a specific behavior yields no response from you, he will gradually stop doing it altogether.

What Does the Science Say?

A recent study in the pet-related publication Behavioral Processes revealed that verbal praise has less of a lasting impact on a dog than physical touch. The study was conducted on a broad control group which included dogs from various backgrounds including shelters, dogs accompanied by people they don’t know, and dogs accompanied by their families. In nearly every single instance, the dog being evaluated strongly preferred being touched via a head or bum scratch to a cue term such as “Good boy!” or “Yes!” Thankfully, praise doesn’t have to be verbal to be effective when it comes to training. If your dog responds better to a hug, a kiss, or a belly rub for a job well done, then that’s the right tool for you!

Interestingly, another fact gleaned from the study is that the best motivation for learning for most dogs is food. Physical touch and food were both preferred to verbal praise by most of the dogs; however, food, by far, was the #1 choice of the control group.

Can the Use of Praise Help Me Change My Dog’s Behavior?

If your dog has some habits that you’d like to break him of, the judicious use of praise can definitely help you get the job done. Though food is often the tool of choice when training a dog to replace an undesirable behavior with a preferred one, praise can also be useful to achieve the desired outcome, and thankfully, it’s calorie-free.

To use praise to its best advantage, it is a good idea to carefully observe your dog, making note to use words of praise in an upbeat, happy voice when you discover him engaging in the behavior you wish to see repeated. Using this method, you can help your dog learn everything from the ideal place to potty to not jumping up on you and ceasing to bark when asked to do so. The more frequently you find things to praise your dog for, the better the results you will see. 

Here is a list of some praiseworthy things you can reward your dog for:

  • Making a good choice such as resisting the urge to bark at the mailman
  • Pottying outside
  • Not pulling on a walk
  • Sitting quietly by your side during a conversation with a behavior
  • Waiting politely at the door
  • Obeying a command

It is equally as important to praise things your dog chooses not to do such as being a pest to other family members or pets, barking, or jumping. When your dog willingly decides not to chase the family cat or considers chomping on your shoes then thinks better of it, it is a good idea to happily praise your dog for making the right decision.

Is There a Right “Way” to Verbally Praise Your Dog?

It is not necessary to use an exaggerated tone of voice to praise your dog. If you plan to be generous with your praise to help your dog learn what you expect from him, you will want to keep your voice upbeat but not overly excitable and deliver your praise with gentle pat or head scratch and a smile. Save your over the top praise for when your dog has done something truly extraordinary. Then you can pull out all the stops and celebrate!

By simply increasing the number of times you praise a dog within the day, you will reap great rewards. Your dog will begin to actively commit to the behaviors you are looking for in him, and your bond will be strengthened as you go through this process together. For best results, be sure to sprinkle some treats in with your training and a belly rub or two will also go a long way to helping your dog learn that training times can be lots of fun and rewarding too!

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