Owning a dog is expensive, no doubt about it. 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 summer 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 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.
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 not only teach people 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 awhile, I realized there was value to his approach.
All praise is good, but praise specially tailored to connect with the dog's way of reacting is 10 times as effective. 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?"
Try your new crooning voice on your dog, and if his tail isn't wagging within five seconds, go up another octave. "GooOOOOOOoood 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 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 orient your dogs eyes up so he's looking right into yours. When they lock in, praise: "GoooOOOOooood dooog."
* 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 others. Don't let the dog take petting as an excuse to go crazy -- lighten up on the pats, but don't correct him -- and let your eyes and voice do most of the praising.
* 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. You're trying to approximate that big panting grin a happy dog has. Panting is optional.
Most dog owners will find that they were getting most -- if not all -- 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.