Difficulty of praising

Recently I realized once again, how much you can learn about people by observing their interactions with the animals. Few days back I participated as an observer in a puppy school where 5 puppies and their owners were taking their first steps in becoming a well-behaved unit. They were practicing simple commands such as “watch me” and “leave it”. The idea was to praise the puppies and treat them when they got it right and take away the treat (and hence the possibility of a reward) when they did not. The puppies were excited and tried their best to figure out what was expected of them, like puppies do. And the owners were trying to keep their puppy’s attention from wandering to all the other puppies that for the most of  them seemed so much more interesting than their owner with their little treats.

Nothing out of the ordinary there. Puppies cannot yet focus for a very long time and in a situation where there are so many possible friends to play with around, it can be very difficult for them to concentrate on anything. What struck me as curious though, was the seeming difficulty to give praise the puppies when they succeeded. The instructor had to constantly remind people to give praise and reward the correct behavior. However, when the puppies lost their focus, started bouncing or trying to get to the other puppies, there was no shortage of scolding words.

Watching all of this, I started to wonder why it was that the owners seemed to forget to reward their dogs. It almost seemed like the good behavior was taken for granted and only the “bad” behavior was paid any attention to. Does this tell us something about the way we interact with others? Was this just a group of random negative people or is this a more widespread way of interacting with others? Sadly, at least to me the easiness by which the owners scolded their pups while forgetting to praise their good behavior seemed very typical of many people. We tend to expect people to do well, to (always) be at their best behavior, to never cross any lines or to hurt anyone. To succeed in that is not something to be praised, but rather something normal, something to be expected. However, if they make a mistake, cross a line, forget their manners, we are quick to criticise, to judge and even “put them to their place”.

I don’t think it is right to have that kind of attitude towards other people, but at least people are capable of understanding that some people just are like that. Dogs are not. Scolding for them is a punishment (well for most at least), but instead of telling them what to do it just leaves them feeling confused. They are not born with a guidebook of living with humans and cannot be expected to do what we want without being taught to. They need to be told when they are doing well or acting like we wish them to,  so they know to do the same thing again. Also when they make a mistake, scolding won’t help, since it is very likely that the mistake was caused by the fact that they did not know our “rules” and “wishes”, got distracted, or simply were just being dogs.

Dog training is, or should be, about positive reinforcement. Positive, however, does not equal permissive. Neither does it mean that you will be feeding your dog treats constantly for the rest of its life. What it does mean though, is that when your dog does well, you really need to let it know by no uncertain terms. I am not trying to say that the use of punishments in dog training is simply “bad”. In fact they have an important place even in the so called positive training methods. The whole issue is, however, quite complicated and I will discuss it in a later post. Now I just want to remind everyone to give praise where praise is due and invite you all to think how do you behave towards your animals.

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