Why Do Dogs Like Praise? Does your dog get all happy and excited when you praise her? Many dogs love praise, especially when you talk in an upbeat tone of voice and perhaps accompany your words of praise with a scratch behind the ears or a tasty morsel of food, but what makes dogs so happy about it? We know that dogs are masters in body language and most likely aren’t much attracted to our perpetual verbal blah, blah, blah. All our talking is likely perceived as white noise other than the occasional word like “wanna go outside?’ or “cookie” which perks them up and yields those adorable head tilts as if they were saying: “Hey, I know that word!” So what’s the whole craze about praise?
A World of Associations
Dogs live in a world of associations which means they tend to pair a stimulus or event with another. Pavlov’s dogs offer a great example of associative learning when they started drooling upon seeing scientists wearing lab coats, because they learned to associate their presence with food. While dogs don’t understand our language, through associative learning, they can anticipate certain events and react accordingly. Listed below are a few examples of associations seen on dogs.
- When they hear you grab the car keys they associate it with you leaving (that’s often when dogs with separation anxiety start pacing and getting worried).
- When they see you place your arm on the armrest, they know you are about to get up.
- When you shut off the T.V. they know it’s likely bedtime.
- When you grab the leash, they know they are about to go on a walk.
- When you grab the food bowl, they know it’s meal time.
- When you get the nail clippers out, they know they are about to get a pedicure (and watch them go AWOL!)
To Each Their Own
So what does praise mean to a dog? Based on certain associations (or lack of) it really depends on on which dog you ask. If dogs could talk, they may likely say that praise has little or no meaning to them, that praise can actually be a tad bit scary, that praise is a form of relief falling under the “pheww”category or that praise is something absolutely wonderful that they look forward to receive.
Praise With No Meaning
Praise per se may not mean anything special to a dog who hasn’t learned its meaning. Praise may be interpreted as just words like others. Try saying “good dog!” to a feral dog or a dog who has had little social contact with humans. Likely, these dogs may care less, or at the most, they may just twitch an ear in your direction and then go on with their lives. In dogs living with us in our homes though, things can be a tad different. Praise may have assumed some level of meaning considering that dogs inherently seek positive social interactions with us. In the majority of pet dogs, it is clear that social interaction is not a completely neutral stimulus, explains Linda P. Case, in the book “The Dog, Its Behavior, Nutrition and Health.”
Praise as Aversive
We often think of praise as something dogs look forward to, but to some dogs praise may even be somewhat intimidating. Even though well-meaning, praise accompanied by excited body movements, direct eye contact or actions such as moving closer, looming over, reaching out and hugging or patting on the dog on the head, may be perceived as a combination of aversive stimuli for dogs who are fearful and lack a history of established trust. Some dogs may enjoy praise from their owners but may react negatively when strangers approach them even though they are using general praise words such as “good boy! what a nice boy you are!” If your dog is timid, prevent exposing him to overwhelming social encounters until you can get professional help.
Praise as Relief
In the old days when training involved harsh methods, dog trainers would rely on stern corrections to inform dogs they weren’t performing as desired. Unwanted behaviors were therefore often suppressed by tugging hard on a choke chain or prong collar (or worse), while verbal praise was given the moment the dog did something right. With time, praise in these poor dogs must have felt like relief as it meant that, “Good news!” they weren’t getting any punishment this time. You could almost hear them sigh: ” Pheww!! Thank Dog, I got it right this time!” It’s unfortunate that still as today, some old-school trainers feel the need to resort to a combination or harsh methods and praise. According to dog trainer Jolanta Benal, praise in this case though isn’t loved for its own sake, but only because it makes the dog feel safe ( at least, temporarily).
Praise as a Reinforcer
Sure, many dogs may react positively if you talk to them in a happy voice, but perhaps only at certain times or in certain situations. In order to make praise valuable enough to use in training, dogs must associate it with something pleasant. There is a reason why dog trainers advise you to say “good boy!” before you give your dog a cookie to reward him for sitting nicely. After some time, praise will be associated with food so it will become music to your dog’s ears! Association with food isn’t always necessary. Some dogs love toys enough that play can also be a great reinforcer.
Power it Up!
You can train your dog to love praise by simply praising and immediately giving a treat. Repeat several times a day for several days, making sure to always stick to the same words. Once those words of praise have become valuable, you can use praise to your advantage to let your dog know he has done something good! And don’t be surprised if your dog still does a happy dance when you praise him even though you don’t always give a treat.
Protect its Value
It may be tempting to stop using treats and rely on verbal praise alone, but to maintain praise valuable, it’s important to give praise followed by a treat every now and then. If you become too stingy and try to solely rely on verbal praise alone, you risk losing the value of praise and it may even become ineffective in reinforcing wanted behaviors. On top of that, it may cause frustration in the dog (think working for several weeks with no pay, you’ll likely be upset and go on a strike!)
Contrary to popular belief, dogs aren’t performing behaviors “just because they’re told to” or “because they want to please us.” The Association of Professional Dog Trainers claims: “It’s poetic to think that dogs live to please their masters, but the reality is that dogs live to please themselves. When we ask our dogs to do something, the first thought racing through their heads is, “What’s in it for me right now?”
Shut Up and Pet Me Please!
While we know that praise becomes valuable when dogs associate it with treats, given the choice between praising and petting, dogs would choose the latter. According to a study conducted by Erica Feuerbacher and Clive Wynne, when food is taken out of the equation, dogs seem to prefer petting over praise. The researchers concluded that “overall, petting appears to be an important interaction between humans and dogs while praise likely has to be specifically conditioned to make it valuable enough.”
Interestingly, further studies conducted by Megumi Fukuzawa and Naomi Hayashi of Nihon University in Japan, revealed that when food was added into the equation, the animals actually preferred food to being touched or given praise and the food rewards helped shorten response times. So it looks like food tops the list of favorite rewards when it comes to dogs!
Did you know? In dog training, primary reinforcers are considering things that the dog naturally values and will work to get (ie, food, water). Secondary reinforcers are instead those things that dog must learn to value by associating them with primary reinforcers so that they eventually assume the reinforcing properties of the primary.