In their own way, dogs praise us constantly. You know the signs- the loving glance, a wagging tail, nudges, kisses, the exited greetings- these are a dogs ways of telling us they are happy with us. In turn, we have found variety of ways to express our pleasure to our dog, such as petting, patting, rubbing, and especially, verbal praise.
Praise in dogs can be one of the best tools at your disposal during training. Unfortunately, its power is often misunderstood and underutilized. A cornerstone to all training is reward- the positive reinforcement of a certain behavior or action. Reward can be many things- a treat, a physical reward (such as a pat or rub), and verbal reward.
Rewards are often though of as being different than praise, but when used correctly a reward and verbal praise can be the same thing. In order to have the desired effect, a reward must be, well, rewarding. Because dogs respond almost exclusively to the tone of our voice rather than the content of our message, a verbal reward must be given out in a technique dogs understand. Verbal punishments are given in “angry” tones- a low, harsh sound, full of admonishment and given in quick, sharp breaths. By contrast, “happy” tones, a sing-songy voice and sincerity are all qualities of our verbal praise that dogs learn to respond accordingly to.
Praising Your Dog
Dogs learn to associate specific human sounds to a learned behavior, the foundation of teaching the basic commands most dogs know- sit, stay, come, no, good, etc. However, the content of what we are saying isn’t nearly as important to them as it is to us- it’s the tone and style of delivery that the dog is mostly responding to in our command.
You can test this at home with your own dog. Ask your dog to sit, and then tell him “Good Dog!” in exited, enthusiastic “happy” tones. He will respond in kind, becoming more exited and alert, perhaps seeking attention or further reward. Now, do the same thing again, only this time, in the exact same enthusiastic tones, say “Oh No!”. Your dog will likely respond the same way he did for the “good dog”. In dogs, tone and delivery convey a great deal of the message, and it is that delivery which can determine whether your verbal praise is effective. The consistency of delivery verbal command and reward is equally, if not more important than the content.
For this reason, verbal praise in dogs must be accompanied by a conscious effort to have the dog recognize the reward when it is given. When using verbal praise in training, it is not enough to simply mutter a quiet “good dog” and have that serve as a reward. Again, the “happy” tones- a higher pitch, enthusiastic and sincere delivery- must convey the meaning of the word, and the reward will have been received. As with any reward based system, the better the reward, the faster a given behavior will be learned- in the case of verbal praise, the more lively and energetic your praise is, the greater reward it becomes and the faster the dog learns.
Timing in the use of verbal praise is almost as important as the praise itself. Dogs have an extremely limited short-term memory, and there is a window of only a few second for a reward to be effective in associating with a certain action. If a dog sits on command, but your reward is too slow, and occurs after he has already stood up again, the reward will be associated with standing, and not sitting.
Just as any reward, praise can be overused, and when this occurs the reward often looses its power in effecting behavior. Dogs living in a busy, noisy household can often become somewhat immune to excessive noise due to the constant exposure to it. In these cases, it may be necessary to incorporate verbal praise with other forms of reward, such as physical rewards or treats, in order to give them greater significance.
Since wolf cubs first began to be domesticated by people, we have learned a new “language” of communication between our species. Just as we have become fluent in the underlying meaning of our dogs various ways of communication, dogs have adapted to recognize whistles, hand signals, body language, facial expressions and most importantly, verbal communication. As such, positive reinforcement and verbal praise in dogs has become an important method of training and rewarding your dog.