As humans, we are able to understand the various ways words can be used. We understand that one word can have many meanings in various situations and that different words can be used to mean the same thing. Unfortunately, your dog is not so lucky when it comes to verbal communication. Dogs are phenomenal at exhibiting and reading body language, but they have a vocabulary of approximately 12-20 vocalizations (depending on which study you read).
This number range is way less than the thousands of words humans have adapted to understanding, and that doesn’t even include tone, context, etc. Once you know and accept this idea, it becomes a little more understandable when your trainer tells you that “down” can only mean one thing and that “put your belly on the floor” can’t also mean “don’t jump.” Other than overusing words and leading to misunderstandings, there is one other instance where people misuse words with their dogs, and this is a big one — “sit” followed by “good sit” or some other variation of using a command word in praise.
Why is this such a bad idea? Well, you are going to be spending quite a bit of time teaching your dog a few key words, such as sit, down, stay, etc., and pairing them with specific behaviors. Each time you use a word differently, you are adding a little confusion to the mix and potentially making it harder for your dog to learn the true meanings of the behaviors. We generally refer to this as the power or value of the cue. You want the cue to be very strong and for your dog to understand its meaning clearly.
Why is it so hard for your dog to understand praise including a cue? You will often see directions on the internet with phrases such as, “Every time his rump hits the floor, tell him ‘Good sit!’” This is meant to help your dog pair their current act with the word “sit.”
Here is why that doesn’t work: your dog does not understand grammar. Simply stated, you understand that “sit” can be both a verb and noun, as in “sit down” and “the act of sitting.” Your dog does not. For your dog, “sit” is technically a discriminative sound or stimulus.
A good example of a discriminative stimulus that may be easier to understand is the sound of a whistle in sporting events. The whistle tells you to start, whether that means dive off of the block in swimming, or to stop due to a penalty, as seen in football. The whistle means only one thing in each sport and is never repeated right after the start or stop to tell the players they did a good job. This is how it feels to your dog.
The sound “sit” means that they are likely to get a reward if they put their bum on the floor. Once their bum is down, repeating the cue with the praise does not tell your dog that they did a good job sitting. That would mean that they understand “good” is being used to describe the act of sitting. You’re essentially wasting the power of the word “sit” by repeating it with the praise.
So what does this mean for praise? You might have come to the conclusion that words matter for your dog. This is absolutely true! So what about the power of your chosen praise word? Well, you give a word power through consistency and clarity by using each word for only one meaning.
A lot of people choose the word “good.” This is a completely fine word to use. However, now that you know words have power, you may notice yourself using “good” to mean multiple things. “Good” might mean you did a good job and are about to get a treat, or it might mean that they are generally a good dog. Either way, it is hopefully paired with a good reward which can help the pup associate it with good feeling and drive them to work for the chosen praise word.
To be extremely clear and consistent you can choose a unique word or sound and pair it exclusively with a food reward to help build a stronger drive for reinforcement. This is one reason why many trainers recommend clickers for training. The clicker is used as a primary reinforcer since it is always paired with food. Even if you accidentally click, you still treat to ensure the clicker is highly reinforcing.
Secondary reinforcers, like praise, are also used once a dog has a good history of reward and is preforming extremely well so that you can fade out the clicker or primary reinforcer. I, for one, tell my dogs they are good and beautiful and the best dogs ever all the time, which is why I specifically do not use the word “good” in training. My primary reinforcer is “yes.” Rarely would I say “yes” to a dog in regular every day interactions. I use “rockstar” as my secondary reinforcer, letting my dog know they are on the right track or that a treat will be coming imminently (it’s a great way to utilize praise for performance dogs since you are not allowed to treat them during competition).
Hopefully now you understand that words have power and meaning for your dog, just maybe not the meaning you expected. By communicating clearly and consistently with your dog, you can build a stronger relationship and see better training results.
Head Trainer- Perfect Pooch
BA, CPDT-KA, AKC CGC Evaluator