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Dog Training: Why Praise Alone Is Not Enough

Let’s face it…we all love our dogs! We love to cuddle them and pet them and love it when they ask for our attention, so we do praise them A LOT!

Some trainers use praise only for training, saying that we (the owners) have to be reward enough to our dogs. Other trainers use toys, treats, or food as a motivator…the list is endless depending on your dog. Personally, I prefer to mix them all up and use whatever the dog finds most reinforcing. Mostly though I like to work with the dog’s meal! Yes, MEALS not treats! I consider treats dessert where in comparison, food (meals) is essential to the dogs survival and well being.

But to stay on topic, let’s talk about praise.

It is fact, that some dogs couldn’t care less about your praise as a reinforcer of good behaviours during training. That doesn’t mean they don’t like your affection or like to be petted by you, it just means it is not as rewarding as other things; such as maybe chasing a squirrel. There certainly are some dogs that light up with praise…but most don’t.

There can be two reasons to why this is the case

  1. Their social drive is just very low (this however can be built on)

  2. Being petted has no value to them!

The problem with praise/petting is that we pet our dogs so often (because we just can’t resist them) that praise looses the high value that we wish it had. Even if in your eyes, you should be the best thing ever in the world to your dog (like he might be to you), if your dog doesn’t agree with you in the moment the squirrel appears...sorry, the squirrel wins; or looses if you look at it from the squirrels side.

There is an exception though! Junk yard dogs... or dogs in places where they are used to protect a field or anything similar, these probably are dogs that really strive on praise. They see their human once a day (if even) get some food thrown at and petted over the head once, just to make sure they remember their owner and who they have to let in the junkyard/field without attacking them. Since dogs are social animals, these dogs will do everything to get some praise and affection.

In the world of the pet dogs, that’s a different story.

If you want, you can raise the value of praise/attention to your pet dog… but can you not pet or pay any attention to your dog 99.9% of the day while living in the same house? So in 24 hours (1440 minutes in a day) can you restrict your petting and any other attention (such as talking to or looking at your dog) to 1 minute and 44 seconds in a day? If you can, maybe you are on the right track with making praise the most valuable thing to your dog…. Personally I can’t do it! I’m guilty of petting my dogs too often, because they are simply…pets.

In the end it all comes down to motivation. What motivates your dog and what you can possibly condition your dog to be motivated with, to make the whole dog training thing more convenient for you? This means I have to find something that has a higher value to my dog and is rewarding enough to ignore the squirrel.

If we can align our motivation with the one of the dog we will get the desired result. So find that awesome something, that has the highest reinforcing value to your personal dog. You still need to teach and train your dog, but it will be a lot easier.

At K9 Possible, we don’t have any magic powder, but we can help you find a reinforcer that has a value high enough to your dog to train them to full off leash reliability so they will even stop chasing the squirrel or whatever keeps them from listening to you.

About the author:

Simone Krebser - CPDT: Owner and head dog trainer of K9 Possible Dog Training serving the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia from Osoyoos to Penticton and Kelowna with result based dog training. Certified dog trainer, certified pet first aid instructor, member of the IACP, dog crazy and chocolate/cheese addict. “My life revolves around dog’s day in and out and I wouldn’t have it any other way. It is my goal to help enhance the lives of as many dogs (and their owners) as possible. Your dog is my priority and I’m as committed to your dog as you are. But I can only help those who sincerely want to help their dogs and not only themselves.”

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