We don’t always think about how, when, or why we praise our dogs. While giving our dogs praise can be a fun way to connect, it often serves us more than it serves them. It has become increasingly common to praise our dogs using food and treats, sometimes giving praise without our dog having worked for it and other times giving a meals-worth of treats not even realizing it.
Obesity in pets is a rapidly growing problem so it’s important to examine the ways we praise our dogs. When it comes to our pets being overweight, there’s no mistaking who’s responsible: we are. A dog would never decide to be overweight; it’s primarily through our actions or lack of actions that they become so.
In our early days of training, my dog Kayo and I worked with trainers who used food to motivate dogs to get the behaviors they desired. For each class we were told to bring heaping amounts of treats. Kayo learned to expect food whenever she did something desirable or whenever she made me happy. Her expectation for treats fueled my desire to give them to her. Before I knew it, she was five pounds overweight and I knew I needed to find ways to praise and motivate her that didn’t involve food. When we do have to use food in training or rehabilitation, it’s best to portion out the treats we give directly from our dog’s meals. Six of the trainers Kayo and I worked with never made that recommendation, so owners may need to decide to do that on their own.
Here are 10 ways that we can praise our dogs without using treats.
Games are wonderful because they promote interaction between our dogs and their favorite things in the world: us. Playing a game like tug or something else creative offers a fun break from training and gives dogs the joy of spending fun time with us.
2. Favorite Toy
Just when our dog has accomplished something wonderful, whipping out their favorite toy is probably more of a joy to them than getting a treat. The well-timed sudden presence of a favorite toy is the ultimate praise, and is even more fun if we play with it with them.
3. A Walk
Many people have started to believe that the simple act of walking is work. We drive around until the closest parking spot opens even though there’s one 100 feet away, and we keep inventing new ways to avoid walking. To a dog however, a walk is a benefit; it’s the most primal fulfillment. Walks should be part of our everyday rhythm with our dogs but a little extra exploration time outside after training or a job well done is priceless.
4. Sniff Time
When our walks with our dogs are structured, they are attentive to us and following our guidance – they are not sniffing whatever they please whenever they want to. A walk like this challenges a dog mentally and pushes them to control their impulses. The greatest praise in the world for good behavior and focus on a walk is time to sniff the world and get to know the history of the area through the nose.
5. Eye Contact
A subtle but powerful form of praise, gentle eye contact is one way to tell our dogs how pleased we are at what they have accomplished. This often comes naturally during training because our dogs begin to look to us for approval or guidance and we speak volumes in our eye contact. The next time your pooch does something you’re proud of, let them know through your eyes.
A good massage when our dog is calm and relaxed can be a real treat and can also help release tension and anxiety that’s stored deep within our dog’s muscles. It’s a great way to praise our dogs and help those being rehabilitated from behavioral issues.
7. Quick Pat
During training or when your dog does something you love, a quick pat can express your joy.
8. Have Fun Command
Establish a command that lets your dog know that it’s time to have fun and relax. This is a great way to praise our dogs, especially when we’re concluding an exercise or training session. Like other commands, our dogs will have to learn what it means but after they accomplish something, we can give them the command, give them our attention and show them through our body language and actions that it’s fun time.
9. Command a Trick
Having a trick or two that are easy for our dogs to do and that they have associated with treats or other good things can become a great way to praise them and let them do something fun. A touch high up in the air is my trick of choice for Kayo. It’s fun for her and is like giving her a break from whatever we’re doing.
Like our body language, our voices can tell dogs instantly how pleased we are with something they’ve done. We can even use our voices to let them know they’ve done something OK, done something good or done something absolutely incredible! Our voices can become part of our training tools but also a great way to praise our dogs without food.
What ways do you praise your dog without food? Did we miss any on the list?
Got any friends who could learn a few new ways to praise their dogs other than giving them treats? Send this post over to them.
About the Author: Mahogany Gamble is a lifetime dog lover who spends her days joyously caring for dogs. She owns The Balanced K9, a San Francisco Bay Area-based dog walking, boarding and training company; and she's the creator of the BoingyDog blog. Her aim is to share with dog owners everywhere the importance of exercise, engagement, leadership and training for raising happy and balanced dogs. This article was originally posted on October 30, 2013 on BoingyDog.