Monday, August 9, 2010

Positive Reinforcement: The Power of Praise

By Linda Cole

Dogs and cats are social creatures, and they respond to positive and negative interaction with us. Some days it seems like the only thing I say to my pets is no or stay down. It's easy to see things they do wrong and correct them for it, but they also need praise from us – lots of praise. You can see their eyes light up when you tell them how good they are. Positive reinforcement is a powerful motivator for even the most stubborn pet. There is a correlation between a pet's healthy state of mind and praise.

As responsible pet owners, we understand pets need to feel good about themselves just as much as we do. They can pick up on our negativity and respond to us just like we would to a negative person. A pet who is constantly yelled at has no idea how to please his owner or how to know what's expected. What you say, how you say it and the tone of your voice, along with your body language, tells pets everything they need to know about us.

Of course, you can't praise a pet who attacked the garbage container in the kitchen or left a “surprise” on the living room carpet while you were gone, but how those situations are handled makes a difference to pets. Yelling does no good because even though they look like they know why they're being yelled at, they don't. You can, however, give them positive reinforcement without giving them praise. Pets don't do things on purpose to make you angry, but a bored pet will find ways to entertain himself and some pets can only hold it for so long before they give in to their need. The best thing you can do is clean up without saying a word and learn how to prevent future episodes. In your pet's eyes, he did nothing wrong and yelling will only confuse him. Ruthie Bently wrote an excellent article on how to discipline a dog.

Praise is the most effective way to train a dog or cat. Positive reinforcement makes a pet eager to do what's asked of them. A dog will accept any command as long as he knows what you want. Think back when you were in school. Most likely, your favorite teacher was the one who made you feel good about yourself with positive reinforcement. Learning was fun and rewarding, and you wanted to perform well in class because of it. Now, remember the teacher who was always critical and you never knew what they expected from you. Learning was more of a chore and you didn't respect that teacher. It's the same way with pets. You want your pet to have positive thoughts about you, and sincere praise means everything to them.

Positive reinforcement and honest praise creates a pet who accepts you as their leader because you've demonstrated fairness and respect to them. Dogs follow you from room to room because they want to be with you. They sit a little straighter and puff out their chest, their eyes light up and tails wag with enthusiasm when you look at them. Cats purr a little louder and give cat kisses with their eyes. It's at that moment you know you've earned their trust, and it's accomplished with positive reinforcement from sincere praise.

Sometimes pets need discipline, but it can still be accomplished in a manner that doesn't belittle the pet or leave negative feelings in their mind. The only thing hitting, kicking or yelling at a pet will teach them is that their owner is not a leader nor respectful of them and doesn't deserve their trust or respect.

Pets give you positive reinforcement when they curl up on your lap or lay beside you on the couch or next to your chair. Because they want to be with you every chance they get, it reinforces your bond with them. Every time they rub against you or look at you with satisfaction, that's their way of giving you praise.

The power of praise and positive reinforcement is so strong, it can help a dog or cat with behavior problems modify their behavior to one that's more acceptable, as long as you take the time to help them. A responsible pet owner understands what type of praise works best and can use it to maintain their pet's positive state of mind. Dogs and cats need you to show them by your positive actions how you want them to act. By using praise with an appropriate tone of voice, you will have happy, well adjusted pets who do what you ask because they want to, not because they were forced to comply.

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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