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On My Mind: The Perils of Praise

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Earlier this summer I visited Honey Loring's "Camp Gone to the Dogs," in Vermont. Classes were held all day long for various kinds of dog sports and activities. The throngs of vacationers were showing off their pets and having fun experimenting with new activities. All the instructors were positively inclined. Many people carried treats, but clickers were not much in evidence. I saw lot of leash guidance, food luring, and praise.

Does praise reward new learning?

It made me think about praise. There's a long-standing tradition that gushy praise is something dogs like. That praise helps them learn. That praise tells them you are pleased, and that they like that. But is that all true?

Here's what praise can't do: it can't tell the dog exactly what it did right, the way the click does. It comes after the fact, and it goes on too long, so praise NEVER serves as real-time feedback during a learning situation.

While praise can't inform specifically, however, perhaps it can inform in a general way, signifying that the whole effort was well done. That's the kind of praise/reward people hand out lavishly to children: a big "Good job!" for anything from washing their hands to getting into Harvard. I once listened to a mother abundantly praising her nine-year-old daughter for having read a whole book. I must have raised an eyebrow, because the little girl turned to me and said, "I get praised for reading. I get praised for being nice to my little sister, too." I nodded. She added, "Of course I'd read, anyway." For that child, praise was a known manipulator and she had already learned to manipulate back: being "nice" to her little sister—in Mom's presence, at least—kept Mom happy, didn't it?

Children can usually tell when praise is intentional, artificial, and designed with an end point in mind—when it's fake—and when it is spontaneous and genuine. Do you think dogs can't? Is your praise rewarding? Are you sure your dog LIKES your praise? I saw vacationers praising their dogs repeatedly without noticing what the dog was telling them about it in return. I saw dogs ignoring the owner. Looking away. Yawning (a sign of stress). Responding to the torrent of words by finding a fascinating smell in the grass or a terrible itch that had to be scratched that instant: a dog's ways of saying "Enough already! Calm down, you're bothering me."

And praise combined with petting could be even worse. I saw some owners "rewarding" a dog for, say, crossing an agility obstacle, or taking a first swim, with praise plus lavish petting on the head and shoulders, even thumps on the back and ribs. In many cases, the dog ducked the advancing hand, and shook itself all over as soon as the hand went away, as if to get rid of the petting sensation. Some dogs looked anxious, or even downright upset. Maybe this did no harm—dogs graciously put up with a lot of our annoying activities; but did it reinforce, or strengthen, the new achievement? I don't think so. What if praise means "Oh boy, they're not mad at me?" I wonder if the custom of lavish praise became ingrained as a training method in the days when most training consisted of correction, correction, correction. When the dog DID do something right, and you praised, at least the dog knew that for once it had escaped the yank and the yell. Yippee.

When dishing out praise becomes a signal that punishment is not going to happen, at least for the moment, a dog may learn to respond with a glad face, or even with leaps, bounds, licking, tail wags, and eye contact. It looks great, all this licking and bouncing, and we feel that it shows the dog loves us. But from my standpoint, this also looks a lot like what biologists call an appeasement display. "Aren't I cute? Don't hurt me, I'm only a puppy and I just LOVE you." (That's one reason dogs, even big grown dogs, like to leap and lick and frolic around strangers in the doorway. From their standpoint, they're appeasing a potential adversary or threat.) So is praise EVER a good thing? Of course. And I saw a beautiful example during my visit to the dog vacation camp. In a luncheon talk I'd been asked to give, I'd raised the issue: maybe praise is not always something dogs appreciate; maybe praise is by no means a sure way of strengthening a behavior or instilling a skill.

"Children can usually tell when praise is intentional, artificial, and designed with an end point in mind—when it's fake—and when it is spontaneous and genuine. Do you think dogs can't?"

One man was particularly stricken by this idea, and spoke out. Ws I suggesting not to praise your dog any more? A terrible thought, to him. I understood and sympathized with his distress, but there was no chance for more discussion: camps have schedules, and it was time for everyone to go on to the next activity. He left perplexed, and I too left with a sense of unfinished business.

That afternoon I was taken on a tour of the ongoing activities: a swimming hole; a wonderful "Come when called" class taught by Leslie Nelson; a wildly varied group of dogs exploring agility. (I fell in love with a Cavalier King Charles spaniel sitting next to me in the grass—talk about praise! This dog was a professional flatterer and I found it very reinforcing.)

Then my guide and I stopped under a tent to watch a class in conformation handling. I recognized the instructor, an experienced judge, from my luncheon audience. I recognized, too, one of the handlers: the man who had defended praise.

He was stacking and gaiting a handsome giant schnauzer. He wasn't coaxing and verbalizing and gushing with praise; he was just giving signals, getting what he wanted, listening to the instructor, turning back to the dog, and going on to the next task. Patiently and attentively, the dog listened to his owner's quiet verbal cues. He moved his feet and held his head as asked, stood motionless as asked. He stayed attentive and on duty while the judge was working with other dogs and handlers. For at least 15 minutes the man and the dog worked together, now on the move, now stationary and stacked, to carry out the teacher's requests. Then the lesson was over. As they hurried out of the ring together, the owner was beaming and waving his arms. I heard a murmur of enthusiastic words: "Thanks for a great job, buddy!" The dog gamboled a little, looking up at him with a laughing face—"No problem, boss, any time…"

And that's when praise is just right. Not when it's a training device, used in the hope of making something happen better, but when it's in genuine thanks for a performance of already-learned skills. Then it becomes a meaningful social exchange, reinforcing to the giver and the receiver both. Great job, guys.

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Karen Pryor is the founder and CEO of Karen Pryor Clicker Training and Karen Pryor Academy. She is the author of many books, including Don't Shoot the Dog and Reaching the Animal Mind. Learn more about Karen Pryor or read Karen's Letters online.

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