How dreadful, how dare I! I’m going to reinforce her fear by baby talking to her! Oh, no! How selfish of me. There are many grey areas in dog training. There are many things that are incredibly counterintuitive as well. It has become popular opinion that baby talking to dogs is a terrible thing that reinforces all kinds of bad behavior. Here’s what I have to say about the topic:
Reinforcement has to be something the dog wants. It also has to be something the dog wants in that particular moment. Could baby talking to a dog and coddling them in times of them being fearful make the situation worse? YES, it could. But a completely different person doing it could bring the dog out of that fearful state using those exact techniques. The reason is, each handler, their energy and intention are completely different. Petting dog is not just petting a dog. Baby talking to a dog is not just baby talking to a dog. There is so much more that goes in to this equation. “Reinforcing” a dog with physical affection does not happen the way people think it does. The dog has to want it, the dog has to truly enjoy it. Just saying good boy and petting a dog on their head doesn’t necessarily reinforce anything. It’s something that is just happening in that moment. If the dog was fearful and you patted it on the head you COULD be conditioning the dog to be fearful because of the “body pressure” you were putting on the dog by reaching for it with an outstretched hand, rather than the dog receiving affection as a “reward” and it intensifying or deepening it’s current state.
One of my favorite expressions in dog training is, “Dog training, if you’re not embarrassing yourself, you’re not doing it right!” I used to be a very boring and stoic trainer. Over the years I began to loosen up and become more silly while training dogs. Dogs love animation. They love for you to be silly, it can be a huge tool in training and confidence building.
The moral of this blog is: Be mindful of what your touch or praise is doing. If you are trying to console a scared dog and it’s not changing the situation, stop. If you notice that your joyful, verbal offering is loosening the dog up and they are coming out of it, continue. These areas are not black-and-white. Be self-aware of what you are sharing with the dog, watch their reaction and adjust accordingly.