“Good boy!” has long been our go-to positive reinforcement for dogs when they do what we want them to do, whether it’s sitting still while we brush their teeth or lying down on command. But it turns out verbal praise doesn’t exactly earn you a whole lot of points in their eyes.
Understanding positive reinforcement for dogs
According to a study published in the scientific journal Behavioral Processes and conducted by the Canine Science Collaboratory at Arizona State University, our furry friends respond much better to physical touch than they do to verbal praise. If you want Fido to finally nail “Sit!” once and for all or simply give ol’ Spot some love, the best thing to do is offer some hands-on petting.
Petting as praise
In the study, researchers looked at how 42 dogs—both pets and shelter dogs—responded to both physical touch and verbal praise, measuring the results by how much time the dog spent interacting with the human in each situation. The findings were unanimous: The dogs preferred petting, no matter if the petting was coming from their owner or a stranger, and showed no signs of tiring of the petting. Shocker! (Not really.)
Another experiment, in which the dogs were either given physical touch, verbal praise, or simply left alone, offered the same results: The dogs preferred petting, and surprisingly, responded the same to verbal praise as they did to being unengaged. The only thing the scientists found dogs liked more than physical touch? Food! (But we already knew that, didn’t we?)
So what does that mean for all of us dog owners who ooze “Good boy!” every time our pet sits on command? By all means, keep verbally praising and chatting (because hey! Talking to our dogs makes us happy), but be sure to pair it with a nice scratch behind the ears or belly rub to really drive the warm-and-fuzzy feelings home.
And even if you’re not trying to train your dog or praise him for a job well done, pet him anyway! When it comes to positive reinforcement for dogs, a bevy of studies show that physical touch—for both humans and dogs—lowers heart rates and blood pressure, resulting in an overall happier, healthier pooch.
PSA: Stranger danger
Most dogs are receptive to petting, but it’s important to get a read on them before you initiate contact—especially if you’re looking to give a little TLC to a dog you’ve never met.
Invite the dog to make contact by squatting down to his level and reaching out your hand. If he happily greets you with a wagging tail and relaxed face, take that as an OK to start by petting his chest. While some dogs like having their ears scratched, others perceive a hand over their head as a threat—it’s best to work your way from a safe zone such as the chest or back.
If the dog backs away, seems tense, or exhibits leery behavior such as raised hair or growling, give him some space.