The gangly puppy at the end of her leash darted out in front, launching into the end of his leash and pulling hard to sniff the palm tree just feet in front of him. His owner dashed in the opposite direction, prompting the dog to chase her.
“Good boy….you’re such a good boy….yes!” she encouraged as she ran.
The moment he caught up, she spun around again, praising the puppy and then darting away, the puppy chasing her once more. She praised him as he caught up, praised while she spun, and praised when she darted away. She was excited and trying to make the game fun for her pup.
Now, her dog was fixed on her, his attention peaked, his anticipation growing for the next game of chase. She was playing a game to teach him leash manners, and so far it was working.
She walked forward again, the puppy at her side, his gaze fixed on her as she encouraged him loudly.
A bird fluttered in front of him, capturing his attention and stealing his puppy focus away. The puppy followed the bird, jutting out ahead of his owner, to which she responded, “Uh,uhhh!” in a sing-song tone as she darted away, praising wildly and encouraging the puppy to chase once more.
The remainder of the walk was pretty much the same. The puppy followed as his owner changed direction. His owner encouraged the pup with every step she took – an attempt to regain his attention and redirect it from all of the fun sights and smells around him.
As we made our way back to her yard, we chatted briefly about the training session we’d just concluded.
“What were your praising him for?” I asked.
She looked puzzled, then responded, “For walking with me…?”
I pressed further, “What specific action were you rewarding with your voice.”
She was confused now and didn’t know how to answer.
I continued, “You praised him when you turned, and he was faced the opposite direction. You praised him when he was trying to catch up as you ran away. And you praised him as he jutted out ahead….what specifically did you intend to convey with your words?”
“Ummm….” she was a bit flustered and then laughed nervously, telling me, “I was trying to make the game fun.”
I changed my tone, realizing quickly that the Socratic Method was beginning to feel like an interrogation.
“You did an amazing job making the game fun,” I coached. “I mean, look how well he is doing!”
Her expression softened and her face filled with pride.
“And now that you’ve both come so far, we can fine tune things….you know, make them better.”
She was on board now, and she quickly knew where I was taking things.
When I’m working with my clients, I typically encounter one of two kinds of people. The first rarely praises their dog. Call it insecurity about what others will think, shyness, or reluctance, it’s tough to get them to be loud and play with their dogs. The second takes it in an entirely different direction. They praise constantly, for every step their dog takes. Even in their corrections, their tone remains sing-songy, the true intention of their words getting lost in the sea of encouragement.
Now if you know me, you know I am BIG on verbal feedback. I’ll sing my dog’s praises to the rooftop as we work on new things. In fact, at times, when new dogs come to me, my praise is so boisterous, it actually startles them.
I’m loud. I know. Don’t judge.
But here’s the thing…. good feedback needs to have meaning. For it to have the desired effect, it needs to be strategic and shouldn’t be tossed around haphazardly.
Think about it – if a dog gets praise for every step he makes, right or wrong, what does the praise tell him?
It tells him nothing. It’s just noise. And it can be confusing.
In fact, much like other forms of reward, praise loses value and quickly becomes background noise when the dog receives it constantly, for heeling well or for simply looking cute. The pup in the story tuned out the praise about five minutes into his game, because it became such a constant sound that it lost meaning. And since he doesn’t speak English (quite yet), even her corrective words, which held the same tone as her praise, got lost in the sea of noise.
Praise, like food or toys, can be a powerful training tool if applied correctly. But to make our words have meaning, we must be strategic.
Here are some tips:
- Watch your tone – To your dog, who isn’t as well versed in your native language as you are, tone has a much stronger meaning than the words you choose. For that reason, make sure your tone or inflection conveys your intentions. If you are happy with your dog’s performance, make your tone reflect it. If you want your dog to be excited, express it in your voice. If you want your dog to be calm, lower your voice and get soothing, and if you choose to use your voice to correct your dog, make sure your tone reflects that.
- Get Strategic – If you’re teaching a complex behavior, give verbal feedback only when it’s earned. Use it to encourage the “tries” (when the dog begins moving in the right direction), and use it to celebrate success. Keep quiet when the dog is making mistakes. The distinction between silence and encouragement can be a powerful tool in helping your dog distinguish right from wrong.
- Contrast makes for comprehension – You can’t know hard if you don’t know soft. You can’t know light if you don’t know dark. And you can’t know quiet if you don’t know loud. Contrast, in this case as in many, aids in comprehension. It becomes much easier for your dog to comprehend the value of praise if he sees it alongside silence.
- Pay Attention – When using your voice, just like any other training tool, it is critical for you to watch your dog’s response. If you are praising your dog and it doesn’t have much effect, perhaps you’ve been a bit haphazard with your praise, or perhaps you’ve overused the reward and dulled your dog to it. Alternatively, if your overexcited dog begins leaping in celebration with your praise, it may be time to tone it down. And if you use your voice as a correctional tool and your dog continues in his happy fashion, it’s definitely time to change things up.
While the puppy in the story had all but tuned out his owner’s excited praise, which had been applied consistently throughout the entire training session, he instantly took note of his owner’s silence when she became more calculated about her feedback. In fact, he was a bit confused the moment she quieted and instantly began seeking out the praise she had been so heavily doling out earlier in the walk. As a result, her commands got clearer, and comprehension skyrocketed.
Verbal feedback can be a powerful tool that we can hold in our toolbox. Break it out when your dog earns it, and keep quiet in between. Creating contrast will aid in comprehension, and being cautious about your feedback will add value to the tool. Your praise shouldn’t be simply background, so don’t let your voice get lost in the sea of noise.