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How to Praise and Reward Your Dog

By Michele Welton, Dog Trainer, Breed Selection Consultant, Author of 15 Dog Books

German Shepherd puppyWe've been focusing on handling undesirable behavior, but we mustn't take good  behavior for granted.

Good behavior is much more likely to be repeated if you let your pup know that you like it.

Think of how pleased you feel when your spouse says, "That was a great dinner, hon" or "Thanks for raking the lawn – it looks so nice." Or when your boss says, "Good job on that report."

Praise your puppy when he does something you like, even if it's as simple as resting quietly on his bed, chewing on his bone, or sitting peacefully beside the cat. By praise, I just mean saying, "Yes. Good." Don't make a speech!

The energy level of your voice matters

When you want activity  from your pup, use an animated  voice.

Suppose he's across the yard. You call him and when he starts toward you, praise him. Now, if you just said "Good dog" in a bored tone, that's not very motivating, is it? But he might break into an enthusiastic run if you call happily, "Yes! GOOD  boy! Yay!"

When you want calmness  from your pup, use a calm  voice.

Suppose he's resting on his bed. If you burst into "Yay! What a good dog you are!", your nice relaxed puppy might leap up and begin cavorting around the room. That's counter-productive. When he should be calm and he IS being calm, be quietly  approving: "Gooood boy. Good."

Some scenarios call for both calmness and animation.

For example, during a potty break, as your puppy squats to pee, give a word of approval in a low-key voice. You don't want him excited or distracted at that particular moment!

But when he's completely done, then you can exclaim, "Yes! Good boy! You did it!" in your animated voice, accompanied by a treat and then a minute or two of fun play.

Are treats necessary to train a dog?

Chihuahua pupNo. As your puppy tries different behaviors throughout the day, your job is simply to give a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down.

We talked about how to give a thumbs-DOWN in this article on corrections.

So what does a thumbs-UP look like? Many pups are perfectly content for your thumbs-up to be a word of approval, a rub of their ears, an affectionate tickle under their chin, a scratch of their chest, a gentle thump of their shoulder, or a toss of their favorite toy.

Cavalier King Charles Spaniel obeying Come command by running towards you

And yet.... most pups do learn more quickly and eagerly when you use food. But to avoid relying  on food, you need to progress from constant treating (every time) to variable treating (every other time, or every third time) to random treating (only occasionally).

When you shouldn't use food

  • Don't use food when your pup is doing (or just finished doing) a behavior you don't like. For example, if your pup is (or has just been) nipping at your hands or jumping on you or barking, don't give him a treat. Dogs look for patterns and repeat  behaviors that result in food.
  • Don't use food when your pup is acting afraid of something. No, the food won't "reassure" him. Instead, it reinforces  his fearful behavior and you'll see more fear, not less.
  • Don't use food if your puppy gets over-excited. Some pups, when they see food, will persistently jump and whine and turn off their brain. With these pups, use treats minimally, if at all.
  • Bulldog pupDon't use food as a bribe. A bribe is when you show the puppy a treat and then give him a command. Many pups are happy to obey "Sit" as long as you're waving a treat. If they don't see the treat, they say, "Pfft... why should I?" Now, when you're first teaching certain words, you can  use a treat to "lure" your puppy into the right position.

    But once he clearly understands, you want to phase out the treats. Like this:

    Once your puppy understands a command, hide the food until AFTER he has obeyed that command. So, say "Sit" but don't even move your hand toward your pocket where the treats are. After  the pup sits, say, "Yes" or "Good." Then  reach into your pocket for the treat.

    Summary... Say the word. Pup does the behavior. Praise. Reach for the treat. That way, you're not bribing the puppy and you can easily phase out the treats.

What kind of food rewards should you use?

Some people use dry kibble. They measure out what the pup would have eaten that day. But instead of feeding it at regular meals, they dole it out one kibble at a time all through the day, whenever the pup does a desirable behavior.

Using kibble can certainly work. But I don't do it because...

  • First, I don't recommend feeding kibble to dogs.
  • Second, kibble takes too long to chew. Often the pup ends up dribbling pieces onto the floor, then snuffles around for the crumbs rather than paying attention to me. I prefer food rewards to be soft so a dog can swallow them quickly.

I like treats to be tiny. Then the puppy can enjoy lots of rewards for good behavior, without getting fat or too full for his regular meals. Boiled or baked chicken works great for most pups – tiny pieces about ¼ to ½ the size of your thumbnail.

I put a handful of treats in a sandwich-size plastic baggie, then tuck the bag into my front pocket so the mouth of the bag is somewhat open to quickly reach in and grab a treat.

Food shouldn't be your only reward

Siberian Husky pup being rewarded with petting

Don't be so eager to pop a treat into your puppy's mouth that you forget about the more personal rewards you can offer.

Instead of a treat, you can fondle your pup's ears... scratch his chest... rub his sides... or scritch under his chin.

And don't forget the verbal praise! These "old-fashioned" rewards are time-honored ways to express approval and appreciation to your puppy.

But just as there are some puppies who get over-excited about food, some puppies get over-stimulated by petting and will keep jumping around and nudging for more. If petting distracts your pup from paying attention, keep your hands off him so he can focus on the lesson.

If your puppy is difficult to motivate

This is often a shock to people with food-crazy pups, but some pups are actually NOT interested in treats. Granted, this may be just a matter of trying different kinds.

Hint... many pups dislike commercial treats but are happy to take bits of real cooked chicken.

But if your puppy isn't food-focused, try rewarding with a toy or game. For example, you call your puppy from across the yard and he comes galloping to you, whereupon you toss his favorite toy for him to fetch. Or you engage with him in a short, vigorous game of Tug.

If your puppy isn't motivated by either treats or toys, don't despair. Dogs have been trained for centuries without using either. My first few dogs were among the happiest and best-behaved dogs I've ever had and I used neither treats nor toys for their training. Instead I just used verbal praise and physical touch.

And if he isn't motivated by praise or touch either? Then I won't lie to you: training is going to be a challenge!

Your dog deserves a leader who is fair and just. We correct bad behavior, and also reward good behavior with praise, petting, treats, toys, or games. Dogs love a clear, consistent distinction between behaviors that result in rewards, and behaviors that result in corrections. Only then do they have enough information to make good solid choices.

My book covertraining program is for puppies 2 to 18 months old. It explains, step by step:

  • How to establish good patterns and routines that govern everything your pup does.
  • How to teach your pup to be calm and to look to you for guidance, direction, and permission.
  • How to make yourself important – the most important thing – in your puppy’s life. How to show your pup the clear, black-and-white rules and routines he is to follow. And how to make sure he does.

Michele Welton with BuffyAbout the author: Michele Welton has over 40 years of experience as a Dog Trainer, Dog Breed Consultant, and founder of three Dog Training Centers. An expert researcher and author of 15 books about dogs, she loves helping people choose, train, and care for their dogs.

To help you train and care for your dog

dog training videos Dog training videos. Sometimes it's easier to train your puppy (or adult dog) when you can see the correct training techniques in action.

The problem is that most dog training videos on the internet are worthless, because they use the wrong training method. I recommend these dog training videos that are based on respect and leadership.

book coverRespect Training For Puppies: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved puppy. For puppies 2 to 18 months old. Your puppy will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
If your dog is over 18 months, you'll want book coverRespect Training For Adult Dogs: 30 seconds to a calm, polite, well-behaved dog. Again your dog will learn the 21 skills that all family dogs need to know.
book coverTeach Your Dog 100 English Words is a unique Vocabulary and Respect Training Program that will teach your adult dog to listen to you and do what you say.
book cover11 Things You Must Do Right To Keep Your Dog Healthy and Happy helps your dog live a longer, healthier life.
book coverDog Quest: Find The Dog Of Your Dreams will help you find a good-tempered, healthy family companion.