As the Humane Society puts it, “Dogs don’t care about money. They care about praise.” Now, while we humans may do crazy things for cash, we can’t deny the power of positive reinforcement. Dogs—and people—like knowing they’ve done a good job. Today, positive reinforcement training is widely accepted as the best way to train dogs. This differs greatly from the strict, alpha male approach many dog owners used in the 1980s and 90s. Unfortunately, simply reinforcing good behavior with words of affirmation like “Good boy!” doesn’t always cut it. There are more effective phrases to use during positive reinforcement training that can boost your dog’s confidence, improve obedience and make both of you very happy campers—and all it costs is some extra time.
Why we like “Good boy!”
Dog owners aren’t the only ones guilty of casually tossing out the phrase “Good boy!” or “Good girl!”—or hell, “Good dog!”—when hanging with their pets. I do it constantly to my cats. Many people say it to their kids. It’s instinct! We want to communicate to our pets that we love them, we approve of what they’re doing at that moment, and we wish they would do it more often.
The problem is that it’s vague and shouldn’t necessarily be used when training specific commands, routines or behaviors.
Dog training methods
The alpha male training theory, which basically says domesticated dogs respond and learn best when they see themselves as submissive to their owners, has been debunked in recent years. This method of dog training stems from a 1947 study focused on wolves from various packs reacting aggressively to one another when placed into a confined space. In fact, wolf packs in the wild don’t really have alphas. They typically roam in family groups with both parents acting as protectors of young pups.
Recently, studies have tested various approaches to training and found unequivocally that positive tactics work better—and quicker—than negative tactics. Negative, aversive- and punishment-based tactics include things like shock collars, grabbing dogs by the scruff of their necks or attempting to establish dominance by inducing fear. Positive, reward-based tactics involve giving treats, playing games and offering praise. When a reward is administered, dogs are more likely to repeat the behavior that earned them the reward.
Note that positive reinforcement training does require you to control the situation. Control doesn’t mean yanking your dog’s choke collar or locking them up for peeing on the rug. Control means maintaining composure during training sessions and keeping your dog’s focus on you. The goal is to establish a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship between you and your pet! This requires concentration and frankly, some solid leadership skills.
Dogs will likely continue displaying poor behavior even after you’ve said, “good boy!” unless you incorporate specific rewards and time your delivery appropriately. The phrase “good boy” and all its variations could also lose meaning if used as a general phrase for all positive behavior (the same goes for “no” and negative behavior). If bosses sent out a weekly “Good job!” email to employees, without letting them know which job was done well, it won’t have a significant impact. On the other hand, a raise right after landing a particularly difficult client by delivering an excellent pitch speaks volumes—and chances are the employees will try to do it again.
What to Say to Your Dog Instead
1. Time praise to align with action
Saying “good boy” after a series of events is ineffective. Sweet, but ineffective. According to the Humane Society, “The reward must occur immediately (within seconds) of the desired behavior, or your pet may not associate it with the proper action.” One study found dogs more closely associate words with actions than humans do, which is why dog trainers pair commands with actions. This practice is often called mark and reward.
Meredith and Brian, a Chicago couple, say mark and reward worked wonders for them when it came to training Luna, their rescue who used to be incredibly reactive. They use the word “yes” to mark the good behavior so Luna knows something positive is happening. “The ‘yes’ needs to happen at exactly the moment the good behavior happens,” Meredith says. This could be right when Luna’s butt hits the ground during ‘sit’ or the second she looks at another dog. Then they give her a treat. “The ‘yes’ is a precursor to something yummy, so it sends good feelings through the dog, hopefully reducing their anxiety,” says Brian.
The American Kennel Club encourages dog owners to administer treats while the behavior is still ongoing. For instance, if your dog sits when you say, “Sit,” give the treat to her while she’s sitting. Do not give her the treat if she sits and then gets up to walk towards you. It should be clear which behavior she’s getting the reward for.
2. Use more specific words while training
The words “Good boy” could quickly lose their meaning if used too often. Along the same vein, words you use all the time in lots of situations should be avoided. This is why Meredith and Brian’s trainers have recommended “Yay” in lieu of “Yes” if need be. “Yay” gets the job done but isn’t something you might say every day. Another tip: Keep it simple. Anything longer than two words won’t really stick with your pup.
3. Use high-value rewards
Find out what makes your dog happiest and use that to reward them. All dogs are individuals, so there’s no one universal reward that will work for every canine. Some may want nothing more than a game of fetch while others want to gnaw on some rawhide. Administering different rewards based on behavior is also wise. Reserve certain treats (carrots?) for walks when leash training, certain treats (Greenies?) for socialization exercises and certain treats (homemade goodies?) for ‘stay.’ The highest valued treats should be used for the most difficult tasks.
4. Watch your tone
One remarkable study that looked at dog’s brain activity through MRI imaging found canines process words and tones of voice separately. While the participating pups did seem to recognize specific words regardless of tone, their reward and pleasure centers were only activated when they heard positive words in positive tones. This means if you want your dog to see a phrase or treat as a reward for good behavior, your tone should also be upbeat and warm.
5. Be consistent
Always reward the behavior you want! Never reward behavior you don’t want. Without consistency, your dog can get confused and training sessions will become meaningless. It’s also important to make sure everyone in your household uses the same commands—and don’t be afraid to ask friends to say “yes” before giving your dog a treat! That will make her feel better than a simple “good dog!” any day.