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Rewarding With Praise

Rewarding With Praise

Praise has to have meaning to a dog, it has to realize, to know that it is being praised, being recognized for doing something right or well. If a dog is fussed and praised to the same degree all the time, it becomes a sound like background music. It is there but not really noticed. Some dogs will need a lot of encouragement and praise in the early stages; others will require little and may even need ‘calming’ praise as their enthusiasm not only carries them through the training sessions but almost beyond them. The handler also has to be very careful in the way a nervous dog is praised. Sensitive or nervous dogs may be quite reticent and in order to hype them or encourage them to perform I have seen trainers go almost into excited hysterics and all they are doing is making the dog even more nervous. Praise should not be given to such a degree that it distracts the dogs thinking, it must not clear the dog’s mind of the command that has been given or the job it is working on. I have even seen dogs avoid doing certain actions to avoid the praise because they thought it was more punishment than reward. Praise comes from voice, hands, eyes and body posture and to be effective you have to mean it. A dog quickly learns when you do not mean what you are saying, watch someone who is calling a dog and saying ‘Good Boy’ in order to get it close to catch it! The dog certainly knows that what the handler is really saying is ‘Wait until I get my hands on you!’ If you have a problem with praise, smile at the same time, even put a laugh into your voice, not only will the dog recognize it but you will also relax and feel better.


Your voice produces the praise sounds; it is the main ‘vehicle’ of praise. As such it should be played like a musical instrument, sometimes enthusing, other times calming, often encouraging and occasionally commanding but always communicating so that the dog understands. The voice is also the main communication ‘vehicle’ of reprimand – warning and punishing. Tone, pitch, volume and words used all help in that communication and understanding. Timing of praise is essential to achieve maximum effect. If you want a dog to pick up an object praise it gently as it is investigating that object giving the command to pick. Then the moment the dog has picked the retrieve praise more triumphantly. Praising too excitedly when the dog is investigating can often, with an inexperienced dog, put it off picking and return to you. So timing and type of praise has to be thought through and practiced. At all times read your dog, its concentration level, emotions, concerns, lack of confidence and even enthusiasm and balance your praise accordingly.


As I have already mentioned, some dog  do not like being over-touched, but in the majority of cases not only do dogs enjoy being praised with hands but almost insist on it once they know that it means the handler is happy with their actions. Over last few years there has been considerable discussion and practice in the art of ‘HANDS OFF’ training. In many  instances  this  has  been brought about because some people cannot use their hands correctly,  they  may  frighten, excite, create nervousness in the  dog  and  a multitude  of other emotions because they presume  the dog  knows that what they are doing is acceptable. Unfortunately many owners do not know how to touch or handle their dogs, and this is one of the reasons we have obedience commands taught with food treats to guide them into what we want. But what is  more  pleasurable than having a partner that you can touch, that wants even demands to  be touched and shows attention, affection and willingness  by either touching back or initiating the touch. It is argued that a dog that initiates a touch is not just demanding attention but also showing leadership.  This need not be the case if other control training has been done and a command from you stops the initiation if not wanted. I have to emphasize here that  I do  not mean  you should be deafening the dog with  vocal  praise and  endless  chatter or constantly running your hands  over  the poor  animal. But I believe controlled guiding communication through voice and hands will bring out a more loving and understanding obedient dog, when used as part of a learning program.

In using your hands it is essential that you read your dog at each stage of the training process. Some as I have explained will expect and accept only minimal hand contact others will take as much as you can give.  Some will need a lot used in a particular way to get the results you require; others will need to be taught that it is enjoyable.  But one of the most important things to teach is respect and acceptance of your hands and an attention to them so that the dog is watching for signals when you want it to.  With some dogs too much contact is a distraction, the reward is doing the job.  With others it is the motivation for obeying.  No two dogs are the same and like humans we need to know what ‘handling’ makes them tick, gives them praise and pleases or annoys them.

So how do we encourage a pup to enjoy hands and realize firstly they are nothing to fear and how they communicate praise? When holding a young pup, find out what it enjoys. Generally a calm stroking motion with the flat of the fingers under the chest or chin, along the back and side and certainly a light scratching at the top of the rear end always gives pleasure. On the chest the pup will usually  enjoy  a backwards  and  forwards  motion  with  the  fingers  gently penetrating through  to the skin, the same is true for the rubbing  of the rear end, but on the back, stroke only in the direction of the coat  otherwise  it  tends to irritate and  initiate  shaking.  A useful erogenous zone to encourage is under the ears, start with rubbing backwards and forwards under each ear in turn with the tips of your fingers whilst the cheek and side of the nose is nestling against your palm.  When the dog begins to find this enjoyable do both ears at once so that your palms form a cradle for the dogs head and lift its eyes towards you. Encourage your dog to look at  you and  smile  whilst  it is doing so, making a face  which  is  not threatening or concentrated but one which is calming and  friendly. Laughing gently at the dog even helps to relax the concerned dog. The smile, the laugh, the touch now becomes a totally positive reinforcement of verbal praise. Another pleasure giver is to cup floppy ears in your hands, dog facing towards you and then use the side of the knuckle of your first finger to rub behind the ear.  Both hands doing it together are ecstasy. Even with the dog sat by your side  a calm rub under the ear with the flap cupped in your  palm also  encourages the dog to come that little closer, even rest  a head  against your leg. I have even used it to build closeness and calmness in heel work. Discover what your dog enjoys, what gives it pleasure. Let your dog ‘see’ you’re hands as friends providing enjoyable rewards.

There are many different movements you can make with your hands to touch, praise and caress a dog,

  • The STROKE is a common movement where the flat of the Hand glides  down with slight pressure over  the  dogs body.
  • The CIRCULAR RUB, using the flat of the hand on the front of the chest.
  • The PAT (PERCUSSION), a ‘drumming’  of the dog with the flat of  the hand to various degrees of intensity on the dogs  body. Usually the best place to pat a dog is on it’s  withers or side, and occasionally under the chest. Never on top of the head
  • The  SCRATCH using the tips of your fingers  under  the chin, behind the ears, on the rear end towards the tail sometimes on the top of the head. Once your dog accepts being handled and ‘Massaged’ two handed scratching deeply up and down the  body  does  release tension and  body stiffening enjoyment. Generally this is not something you want  to do for too long a period of time.
  • The  GRIP  is a kneading motion where  the  hand  takes gentle  grip  of  hair loose skin  and  sometimes  even muscle  tissue. The shoulders, the chest and  even  the base  of  the back respond to this movement.

In  all these actions the emphasis in the early stages has to  be on  calmness  and a pressure which is felt, but  not  annoying  or painful. The action should be from a caress to firm pressure. The size and type of dog has to dictate this and do consider your own strength  when handling. In most cases once a dog gets  to  trust and  accept  the handling and sees it as part of  pack  grooming, acceptance, praise and also subservience to you because you initiate  it, then pressure can be increased but never to pain levels of course – when does a PAT become a SMACK?
The most effective way of showing hand praise is with either the PAT along the side of the dog, the CIRCULAR RUB on the chest, or the STROKE and PAT along the dog’s side together whilst verbally praising the dog.
Your  hands are sensitive instruments which can be used  in  many ways  to work with your dog, not only as praise. That calm slow stroke from  back  of neck to half way down the back, the short strokes over the  head, the  deep finger probing scratching on the rear end, the flat  of the  hand up and down the chest, lifting upwards motions  as  you stroke  the chin and the rubbing under the ears can be  staccato, strong,  gentle, manly, loving, and bonding. Think how to use your hands and read the reactions from your dog.
With  all dogs make the early days of hand socialisation  easy, calm  and consistent. Make the dog feel as though your hands  and arms  are the protection that ‘mums’ legs and paws provided  when it  was suckling at the milk bar. Make movements  easily,  confidently and in a way which does not excite or frighten the dog and don’t expect everything to go right from day one. Some dogs  have to  learn  in very small stages just how pleasant hands  can  be. Explain  to guests and especially children just how  they  should handle,  stroke,  caress and reach for a dog. Everyone  knows  to reach  forward towards a dog, palm upwards with their hand  under the  dog’s head height, don’t they? A sensitive dog that  has  an inherent  fear of strangers and their hands should be ignored  by the stranger and let the dog do the investigative greeting. Often a  sniff of your hand will be enough to let the dog know  whether it  should be friendly or just stay away. I have had a number  of dogs  of my own that not only sniff my hands when we are  working but  also lick them. I often wonder whether they are  tasting  my mood. A look at my face, a deep search into my eyes and a lick of my hand and they know how I am feeling.

Hands  do not only convey praise and build a relationship but  they  are also  a tool of punishment. A shake of the scruff, a  smack  over the  nose or rear end are all ways in which we punish  our  dogs. Again  many modern theories believe that all training  should  be positive, but the occasional reprisal for an action the dog  knows is wrong is not cruel providing it is not abusive to the dog,  and more  importantly  the dog does know what it has  done  wrong.  A bitch  will hold a naughty pup down by the scruff or will  put  a paw on it. A dog will put another ‘in its place’ by a quick shake of  the scruff, a lift of the paw or head ,and a placing of it  across the  shoulder  of the other. This with  verbal  reinforcement  is generally  enough to say ‘That’s all I will take thank  you.  Now behave  yourself.’  The hand placement, holding the  scruff,  the stare  into  the  eye, and the growl of the voice  is  enough  to reinforce your displeasure. The pressure and intensity depends on the dog and the degree of naughtiness.

A dog should understand the communication from hands. Whether they are rewarding, punishing, calming, encouraging or just showing togetherness. If I was to generalise with hands I would say that men don’t  use them  enough and ladies tend to over use them in  praising  their dogs.  Make love with your hands to your dogs and  receive  their love in return. As  a handler  with your hands you can initiate actions and you can refuse  them. By  giving the right actions at the right time you will show  how pleased you are with your dog and how you are thinking. In return your dog will know he is part of your ‘pack’ and want to do  more to  gain  your ‘hands on’ attention, which to him is  praise  and motivation.

If your hands communicate praise through touch, your eyes should reflect it and your body show it. A tense body, staring eyes and a dog will sometimes receive the wrong signals. If you believe that your dog is trying to please you at all times and when it goes wrong it is due to lack of understanding, poor communication, or misplaced enthusiasm rather than disobedience, then you will approach training with a better frame of mind. When your dog fails at an exercise or does something not quite as good as you require, it will only realise this if you bring it to its attention. Sometimes a reprimand at the wrong time can do untold damage that could take a lot of time to put right. It is often better not to make an issue of a problem, which could reinforce it, but to look for ways of avoiding it or even waiting for a moment when the dog improves even a small amount and then you can praise. Look for opportunities to praise, bringing the action to the attention of the dog and letting it know that you approved. Always give your dog the benefit of the doubt unless it obviously is showing wilful disobedience.

The more trained a dog becomes the less frequent praise is required and emphasised praise is best kept to times when something new or improved has been achieved. The strongest stimulus for a dog which likes praise is intermittent praise or reward. That is when praise is not given every time but only when it does really well or completes a complex series of task. Even then the quality of the praise is tempered to the task and the dog.

When your hands and voice communicate praise your eyes, face and posture must reflect this.