When our dogs do something different, fun, nice or unexpectedly nice, we tend to have one, two or a whole bunch of nice things to say to them.
If you are anything like me you are prone to give them full motivational speeches when you see them do something we consider great.
Just the other day, Joel, my BC, caught a ball that bounced in a weird way on the wall and did a strange turn; he managed to turn his body just in time to grab the ball in the air. I was so amazed, even though I have seen similar moves done by him by the hundreds, I instantly shouted a “Nice one, you are such a smart boy” followed by a stupid grin and several “who is the good boy?” whilst rubbing his back. Then back to tossing balls.
My pitbull X Safira is drowned in cuddles, back rubs and words of love, when she falls asleep next to me and starts making cute noises. I cannot resist her at all, she is old, with white hairs all over her face and incredibly cute in ways I cannot describe.
I do admit I might be “too” cuddly with my dogs – but I know from working with hundreds of people and their dogs, that, it is fortunately very common for owners to be proud and express joyful emotions verbally and physically to their dogs.
I personally think it is great. As long as your dog enjoys and appreciates physical contact , by all means enjoy! I always respond to owners who say: “I give him too much love” – “There is no such thing as too much love especially for a dog”.
It is not about the amount of love and cuddles you give your dog that drives him to show undesirable behaviours and don’t believe anyone who says otherwise.
Dogs are driven to perform more often behaviours which will allow them to maintain or access something they want. So when we try to teach our four paws friends something new, or if we are just hoping to strengthen behaviour, usually we quickly offer the dog something he wants at that time in exchange.
Food is a handy, quick and incredibly effective primary reinforce, because dogs eat every day, and if they eat 200 pieces of kibble a day, then you have 200 behaviours you can now exchange for them.
So if a dog is hungry, he will sit in front of you with a wagging tail, he will drop into downs all over the house, he will nudge in the arm. He will offer whatever behaviour he learnt that is likely to make you drop a bunch of kibbles on the floor.
Understanding this might shine a new light on why verbal praising or a pat on the dog’s head might not be working as expected in terms of strengthening or teaching new behaviours.
Lets put it this way, if you never touched your dog, and never ever said anything nice to him or talked to him at all, the talking to him and patting on the head could work better, however even that would have a limit to what you could teach reinforced merely by cuddles and words.
So when I usually train my dogs I am very verbal.
I get happy with their successes and express them with my words “Awesome, you are so smart, great stuff! good boy! yey!, etc..” and sometimes I even cuddle them where they are likely to enjoy it, like a good scratch on the rump.
However this is not my primary reinforcer to train behaviours.
I realize the limits of those actions in terms of teaching and strengthening behaviours, and so I always have other reinforcers, such as play (tug playing, ball tossing, running with them), food, or environmental (letting them access the garden, letting them run off lead on the beach, etc...) at hand to exchange for those behaviours. I give them access to some food, play or environmental reinforcer, and usually after I celebrate with lots of verbal praising.
The best way to train is by using positive reinforcement and rewards, but patting your dog on the head and or saying “good boy” will be extremely limitative, you need to up your game in terms of rewards if you want it to be effective.
Dogs do love when we are happy with them, but that should not be the only reward offered, after all most times we offer them love, cuddles and verbal praise, just because they exist and are there! Let’s continue offering them all the love we want, and trust me, they relish and deserve it, but never forget to use other resources to train and strengthen behaviours, that way you will have a happy, loving an fulfilled relationship and an well trained companion as well.