Is giving praise good enough?

Recently I was asked in class by a participant if she could stop using treats and instead praise her dog to motivate her to do the behaviors they were learning.

I know that every single trainer that uses food as a reinforcer has heard this same question thousands of times. A different variation to the question is: when can I stop feeding my dog for doing “x” or “y” thing?

While I think it is crucial for owners to question procedures, this one in particular amuses me and frustrates me at the same time. It frustrates me because I think people in general lack generosity and empathy towards their dogs when it comes to requesting the dog to do something they want but expect the dog (or the child, the spouse, yes, fill in the blank – it applies to all of us) to just change their behavior or comply with us because WE want them to! This is the amusing part!

Using food as a reinforcer is a wise choice. Food is what we call a primary reinforcer.

That means in plain English that the dog does not have to learn to “love” it. It is something dogs want or would work for and if they don’t, well they die.

Other primary reinforcers are: water, mating (sex), control of environment and play/social interaction. Each of these reinforcers, or anything that is reinforcing for a dog, are also valuable to us as a way of achieving behaviors that we want from them.

So where does praise fall under as a potential reinforcer? For some dogs praise might be really high on the list of powerful reinforcers. However, if this is the case it is because praise has been paired (associated) with another powerful reinforcer for the dog. i.e.: a primary reinforcer. So the dog has learned that after the happy tone of voice: Good girl!, Great!, etc. comes the treat, the toy toss, attention, etc. Or at least and this is important no harsh consequences! It will take a very twisted person to praise and then smack the dog. Ugh!

Here is an analogy that will hopefully explain the above: When your boss tells you that you have done a terrific job, you will most likely experience many positive emotions such as pride, happiness and even anticipation for something that most people want: recognition in some salient way such as a perk – that they value such as a promotion or an increase in salary.

Now, if one gets lots and lots of: ‘good job!’ but nothing else comes of it… how long will this person continue to do terrific work just to earn the ‘good job!’ from their superior? Or, how many of us would continue to go to work (joyfully) because:

A. I should do it (moral stance)
B. Strong work ethic (value stance)

Now, wouldn’t you feel much happier going to work if you not only get told you are a valuable member of the team or something like that, BUT you are also getting paid for it? In other words, money is a very powerful (primary) reinforcer for almost everyone!

Yes, of course, there are other reasons why we do things: ego, sense of obligation, etc. But I assure you that this will not last if none of the above reasons on their own are not a primary reinforcer.

The bottom line – and this is not my opinion but straight from research done in over 200 different species of animals other that dogs – in our case, dogs need a reason why to comply with our request. To clarify, punishment (something the animal wants to avoid or escape from) is also a very powerful reinforcement. BUT how very sad to have our dogs comply because they are so afraid of being hurt, being afraid… not my game!

The good news is that our dogs have to eat!!! Otherwise they will… die. So why not use their daily food to train them to be happier dogs, more obedient dogs (ugh, I hate this term; feels so one sided…) -so let’s say instead: dogs that are wonderful, joyful companions – who love to participate in our requests of coming when called, getting off the sofa, waiting politely at the front door, etc. because there is something of value to them?

Giving your dog treats for his complying is not buying his love. Same thing with our significant other: They most likely (unless you just started dating :)) are not taking the garbage out or bringing our favorite wine home because they wants to make sure we love them. It probably has to do more with being in relationship and as such we both are getting something that we truly want.

My suggestion to my client was to think of having a (fair) relationship with her dog by paying her handsomely with what her dog wants and to use those reinforcers to her advantage. Remember: whenever we think: my dog should do…. our dog is asking ‘Why should I?’ There is nothing strange or wrong about this. It just proves that our dogs are alive and as such, they too need reinforcers to continue engaging with life.