To keep your dog happy, shower it with praise

PETS AT HOME

November 07, 1992|By Gina Spadafori | Gina Spadafori,McClatchy News Service

(Gina Spadafori has the week off. This column was published Aug. 1, 1987.)

Caring for a dog is expensive, no doubt about it. There's food, veterinary expenses and extra housing costs, vacation care, training classes and equipment.

But one of the most important elements of keeping a dog happy is free, in limitless supply -- and never used enough.

That element is praise.

On almost any evening you can find an obedience class, full of eager beginners and excited dogs trying to master the rudiments of correct canine social behavior. The skills of a dog trainer are pretty tough to learn, and for most beginners, learning to walk with the dog at heel without tripping on left turns or the leash is quite an accomplishment.

But they're working at it, anyone can see. Sit down nearby and watch and you can see them recite the steps as they go through the exercises: dog's name, command, correction if necessary and praise. But by the time they get to that last one, it's forgotten, or glossed over with a quick and cursory, "good dog."

One dog trainer told me that teaching beginning handlers to praise their dogs is the hardest part of her classes. Another trainer makes it part of his lesson plan to teach people not only how to praise their dogs but also how to play with them. When I first heard this, I thought it was ridiculous, but after I listened a while, I realized there was value to his approach.

Here are some tips:

* Use the right tone of voice. Dogs communicate with one another through sounds easily duplicated by humans. If you're angry with your dog, for example, dropping your voice to a low rumble will closely approximate the growling of a dog. For praise, use a sweet, high-pitched crooning voice -- "Goooooooood, doooogggg. Aaaren't youuuu a gooood doooog?"

* Tap into your dog's body language. Eye contact is one of the most important areas of communication for dogs, and mastering eye contact, dog-style, immediately strengthens your relationship.

Catch your dog's eye by having him sit and then tapping him between the eyes or swooping your hand under his chin and bringing your fingers back up near your eyes while you make a clucking noise. The motion upward and the sound will orientate your dog's eyes up so he's looking right into your own. When they lock in, praise.

* Tailor your petting style to your dog. Some dogs go crazy when petted; others hardly notice. Keep the petting -- a little chest pat or a chin scratch -- light for the most touch-sensitive and a little more boisterous for the inattentive.

* Smile. Dogs understand many of our facial expressions because they use similar ones to communicate with each other. A smiling face is understood in both species, but if you really want to get through, make it as wide-open a smile as you can.

Most dog owners will find that they were getting most of it right. But many more aren't even close, and it's not too surprising when you consider the problems we have communicating with our own species.

But it's not hard to "talk dog." And to a dog, praise is payday and thank you all rolled into one.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278

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