Using Praise as a Correction.

In the interest of building an easily-referenced library of dog training tips, here is another article previously posted on the Amazon blog. By the way, in reviewing this before posting it, I realize it may be one of the most profound things I’ve ever written about dogs. Enjoy!

Doing Things Backwards?

My Dalmatian Freddie and I were in Central Park one day when he was a little over a year old, and he found a discarded chicken breast near a park bench. What a treasure! As soon as he saw it, he ran over, took it in his mouth, then looked over at where I stood, about twenty yards away, and dug his paws in, getting ready to run off with it.

At the time I had developed the idea that everything the training books say is wrong, and I was experimenting with my hypothesis by randomly doing the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to do in any given training situation, just to see what would happen. As Fred got ready to run away with his prize I thought, “I should probably tell him no or correct him in some way. What would the totally opposite, wrong thing be?”  The answer came back, praise him. So I said, “Good boy! What a good boy!” in an excited, highly emotionally charged voice.

Freddie, without knowing what he was doing immediately dropped his treasure and came running back to me, wagging his tail, and smiling. (Dalmatians do smile.)  I praised him even more, picked up a stick, teased him with it, then got him to chase me to get it. We played a little tug-of-war, with Freddie on his back legs, and his front paws braced against my body. Then I used the stick to heel him past the chicken breast. I did it three or four times in a row. Then I had him sit right in front of it, took a few steps back, and said, “Freddie, come!” and he came to me and we ran off, playing.

Accentuate the Positive

I thought this over, wondering why it had worked, and the only thing I could come up with was that I’d interrupted Freddie’s flow of feelings. He wanted to run off with his lovely, tasty chicken breast and make a meal of it. All my praise did, in this way of looking at things, was interrupt his behavior, his desired expectation, and his flow of feelings.  As I thought it over even more I realized that whether you correct the dog or praise him, all you’re really doing is interrupting his behavior and/or his flow of feelings. Both methods stop the behavior as it’s happening, but corrections carry an unfavorable association. On the other hand praise carries only positive associations. So the question is, would you rather have your dog see you as a positive or negative?

A few months earlier I'd been intrigued by a study done at Harvard, which showed that the human brain is designed to be unhappy, or at least not to be happy for very long. This has to do with how dopamine and serotonin levels always go down after they spike, and is similar to the effects of an addict's high, and how his substance of choice tends to lose its effectiveness the more it’s used.

Another way of looking at it is the new toy at Christmas phenomenon. Man, on Christmas morning that new toy is the most wonderful thing in the world, but two weeks later it’s old hat. The Harvard researchers’ theory was that the brain is designed to not allow us to be happy for very long so we'll continue to do things, to achieve new levels of civilization, or to just get up in the morning.

Does a Dog's Brain Do the Same Thing?

I wondered if a dog’s brain worked the same way, and it occurred to me that whenever a dog (or wolf) leaves the den, his hunting instinct immediately kicks in. This means that there’s some level of dissatisfaction going on in the dog’s emotional system; some internal mechanism is telling him he’s not going feel better until he finds some way to use his prey drive, whether it’s meeting another dog to hook up with, or find a squirrel to chase, etc.

If this is true, then when Freddie found the chicken breast, he was thinking, “I’ve found it! This is what will fill that empty feeling inside!” He wasn't really hungry. He’d eaten a good breakfast. He was simply looking for some way to satisfy his hunting instincts. (By the way, if you think about it scavenging is a very economical way for a dog to hunt: you go directly from search to eat, with no need to stalk, chase, grab, and kill your prey.)

Then, when I praised Fred, flooding him with positive emotions, which came from a person who was the most important focal point of his life, it was even more emotionally fulfilling for him than finding the chicken breast had been.

The Underlying Mechanism

Going back to the underlying mechanism, here’s how praise works: a dog sees a morsel of food. He goes after it with the expectation of achieving satisfaction. If he’s interrupted, both his desire and his expectation of achieving satisfaction are thwarted. Since interrupting him by saying “No!” drags negative associations with whomever is saying it into the equation, the food object is rarely seen as the primary negative. Neither is the dog’s behavior. In the dog’s experience

the handler is perceived as the primary negative

because the handler is an obstacle to the dog’s desire.

Saying “No!” is an impure correction because the negative experience of being interrupted is directly attributable to the person saying “No!” not to the behavior itself.  On the other hand, when you use praise, the negative experience of being interrupted can’t be attributed to the handler, only the the thing the dog desires at that moment is perceived as negative. When you use praise as a correction...

...the handler is perceived as the primary positive

because the handler is the solution to the dog’s desire.

When Freddie found that chicken breast his social instincts became polarized toward resistance. The food was more important to him than his need to feel connected to me at that moment. But by praising him, I instantly reversed the polarity of his emotions from social resistance to social attraction. He lost his feelings of attraction to the food. Or rather, my praise changed his feelings of attraction for the food into feelings of attraction to me. In other words I changed his emotional state, and...

...when you change a dog’s emotional state,

you automatically change his behavior.

Doing the Opposite of What the Training Books Recommend

After the chicken breast incident I spent the next few days praising Fred—who’d previously been a bit of a problem scavenger—whenever he found something on the street. In three or four days his scavenging totally disappeared. All because I’d pigheadedly done the exact opposite of what the dog training books (and common sense) would say to do. I began using a similar technique on other dogs with scavenging problems, and found that it always works to some degree, depending on how emotionally attached the dog is to his owner.

You have to remember that when a dog goes after something on the street it’s not necessarily because he’s hungry, but because he has an inner feeling of tension that needs to be resolved. (MRI research shows that even while the brain is in the conscious resting state known as “default mode,” there is always a certain amount of background tension present.) He may have no real desire to eat a pizza crust, just a general sense of dissatisfaction. (Remember, many dogs will often scavenge after eating a full meal, so they don’t do it out of hunger.) 

When you praise a dog, you give him a feeling of connectedness which overcomes his need for the food object. When you correct the dog, you may be successful at getting him to leave the object alone at that moment, but you do so by leaving him with an unfulfilled desire, a desire which has to then find its expression through another outlet. 

Ultimately, it’s a matter of attraction and resistance. Praise makes a dog feel more attracted to you than he does to the food object. Scolding, even though it seems successful and seems to make sense, actually makes a dog feel more attracted to the food! However, this technique only works when the praise reverses the dog’s emotional polarity. When the dog is too wound up,it does no good to praise him. You have to use praise before things get ratcheted up.

So remember: this isn’t a cure-all; it’s just a helpful tool.  


"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"

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