In Criticism of Praise

Sang sent me the following email which I feel speaks powerfully to how all beings need to feel in control of what they’re experiencing and how this runs counter to the impulse we have that tries to control everything about our dogs, even in the way we praise.

(From Sang)
I’ve been reading this book Nurture Shock, which is about some new interesting research about raising kids. It’s pretty interesting.

But the first chapter is called, of all things, “The Inverse Power of Praise”. How about that?

In this chapter, one of the things they talk about, which I think has direct correlation to what we have talked about before, is the overuse of praise. Up til now, there has been this notion that parents should praise their kids to build their self esteem. Everyone habitually praises their kids. “You’re so smart kiddo”. Always telling them how great they are, or how capable they are, even going as far as putting reaffirming notes in kids’ lunchboxes. Boys are earning baseball cards for clearing their plates at dinner. And girls are earning manicures for doing their homework. These kids are saturated with messages that they’re doing great. That they ARE great, innately so. They are constantly told that they have what it takes. The presumption is that if a child believes he is smart, then he won’t be intimidated by new academic challenges. It had been shown that praise for intelligence would boost a child’s confidence. And it seemed to work. But a researcher from Columbia University, Dr. Carol Dweck, believed that all this praise would eventually backfire. They started to find that praising children for being smart may not be keeping kids from underperforming, it might actually be causing it. So she spent 10 years testing 5th graders, and she found something very interesting.

They started giving the 5th graders these easy, non verbal IQ tests that they would all do well on. When they were graded and the score was given to them, they were each given one single line of praise. Some were praised for their intelligence. You must be really smart at this. The others were praised for their effort. You must have worked really hard.

Then, they were given a choice to take one of 2 tests. The first option was another puzzle that would be harder, but the students would learn something from it. The other would be an easy test, just like the first test they took. Of those praised for their effort, 90% chose the harder test. Of those praised for their intelligence, the majority chose the easier test. They took the cop out.

Dweck wrote that when we praise kids for their intelligence, we teach them that is the name of the game. That it’s more important to look smart. Don’t risk making mistakes.

In a subsequent test, the 5th graders were all given a test that was 2 years ahead of their capacity. So inevitably, all the students failed the test. However, the students reacted differently based on the praise they were given during the first test. Those praised for their effort got very involved, trying every possible solution to figure out the answer. They even said how this was their favorite test, because it really engaged them. Not so for the ones praised for their smarts. They assumed that their failure was evidence that they weren’t really smart at all. They were visibly stressed while taking the test. They were nervous and even sweating.

They were all then given a final test, just as easy as the first. Those praised for effort improved their scores significantly. By an average of 30%. Those praised for intelligence did worse, by about 20%.

Emphasizing effort gives the child a variable they can control. They come to see themselves as in control of their success. Emphasizing natural intelligence, takes it out of the child’s control. It provides no good recipe for responding to a failure. And that can be said about any talent, whether it’s intelligence, artistic, athletic etc…..if you don’t prepare kids to be able to handle failure, then the results can be devastating when they do fail.

Just like with the dogs, when you remove their sense of control, they panic. But give them the feeling that they have control, and they feel safe.

Just had to share that, as I found that very interesting in regards to how we fry our dogs. Since dogs are our mirrors, and we’re frying them, then surely we must be frying our kids too.

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Published September 18, 2009 by Kevin Behan
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12 responses to “In Criticism of Praise”

  1. Sang says:

    I mentioned that this was based on the book I am currently reading, Nurture Shock. So I want to add a link to them for those interested in reading it and finding out more.



  2. Donnie Osler says:

    This reminds me of an article I read recently called “the Poisoned Carrot”. It discusses a lot of the same ideas, and emphasises the need to create a positive learning environment as opposed to praise and rewards. That is the thing that I am learning most from Natural Dog Training….

  3. Shanty says:

    This is interesting because the first training program I used was based on using excessive praise to divert our dog from behaviours we didn’t want.
    I’m not sure if this backfired or if it makes no difference now that I’ve tried to overcome the habit.
    I’m beginning to wonder though if my message of “good dog, good boy”, while it halts or stops behavior, is actually causing stress when I least want it – ie: playing with other dogs, being gentle with children. Is it possible that being “good” is causing an internal stress that will come out in negative behaviour?

  4. Angelique says:

    I’ve been wondering about the whole praise thing because we seem to always assume praise is good, and assume the dog associates it with something we want to reinforce. What we assume are positives for the dog may not be. And what’s the mechanism for the dog understanding praise, I mean, they don’t praise each other vocally, so why do we hold it in such high esteem as an effective means of communication? What is it about how humans deliver praise that puts dogs in a group mood, or keeps them there? And is the praise what is reinforcing the behavior, or is it the fact that we are in a group mood with them and they like that? I think we usually think about praise in a very OC kind of way, it marks a moment, but how NDT uses praise is different and I’m not able to articulate it. Anyone?

  5. kbehan says:

    I’m going to write an article on praise and correction, but for now let me say that both praise and corrections should add energy to the system, and this is what influences the behavior to go in a constructive direction, rather than a negative or positive outcome in a reinforcement way of looking at things.

  6. Vocal praise can do a number of things besides “reward” good behavior. It can calm a nervous dog, it can encourage a dog to keep working toward his goal, it can even be used as a correction. (See my latest article at on how I used praise to stop a dog from scavenging by praising him every time he did it, and why, according to an energy theory of behavior, it worked.)

    The dog/human dynamic is different from that of the dog/dog. One of the primary goals of Natural Dog Training is to overcome a dog’s natural social resistance to us as vertical (instead of horizontal) beings. And as Kevin says in his book, dogs will work better for us if we can make them feel good about being with us. Praise is one of the best tools for doing that.


  7. kbehan says:

    The excessive praise and “hitting the jackpot” approach distorts a dog’s perception of reality so that it gets the imprint that it has to be the object of the most intense expression of energy in order to sense connectedness with its owner. This means that when it isn’t the object-of-attention, it is getting unnerved and then will over respond to things. This reinforcement kind of thinking doesn’t take in the fact that dogs have an internal faculty of discrimination to go by feel, so that they can innately feel what a child’s sensitivities are and can self-modify on their own, they don’t need to be taught this. So dogs that are problematic are trying to “out-intensify” other stimuli in order to put the moment into a familiar frame of reference. The best police dogs I worked with bit the criminal the hardest, were gentlest with children, could care less about a retarded person throwing a tantrum, didn’t even get excited when their handler was man-handling a drunk driver. But when they had to deal with a serious criminal in a life-threatening context, they then displayed a level of intensity that was bone-chilling and took the fight right out of the bad guy. These experiences showed me very clearly how powerful a dog’s faculty of discrimination can be and this is not a function of training or learning (mentally). It’s wholly a function of feel. My aim with NDT is to help people regain their trust in a dog’s good nature so that their temperament becomes their guiding principle rather than having to rely on rules and regs.

  8. Shanty says:

    After reading Lee’s new post (I’d already come across the article on praising the dog for scavenging) I assume it is the balance and timing that makes the difference.
    The training we’ve done in the house to prevent garbage digging, furniture chewing and other destructive behaviors seems to conform to Kevin’s suggestion to trust their nature. Praise was not intense, just a calm way of redirecting. Our dog never bothers with destruction and is never kenneled and I fully trust him in that regard.
    On the other hand – behaviors where the intensity is higher – like meeting other dogs, or meeting strangers – can go either way. Sometimes my praise calms him whereas other times it seems to put a wrench in his works temporarily but eventually he snaps (either in excitement or aggresion). I think it requires me to be more aware of how intense the meeting is and remove him from interactions where I see he is not comforted by my praise.

  9. kbehan says:

    A critical point to consider is how much energy can the connection between you and your dog conduct. If it can’t conduct the full monty, then your praise can under certain circumstances add more energy than the situation can conduct and that’s when you get the breakdowns. So as you intensify the resistance you make and amplify your predatory aspect, this goes deeper into your dog’s battery, and as your dog overcomes this, the channel between you gets stronger. Ultimately you can be around your dog and the connection is so clear you won’t have to do anything and he will feel calmed by your proximity. So in the interim, don’t praise your dog during an encounter, wait until there’s a break off by the other dog, and then supple your dog and you are smoothing out that intense spike of energy. Also before you have an encounter with the next dog and you see one on the horizon before your dog, take the time to “get your dog into his body” with some very hearty chest thumps that border on painful. Then when the dog comes into range, you will invariably notice that your dog is more composed because he can now reference his body because he can feel it. Then, after the break away, do the supple up and if no dog is around, get into hearty pushing and play and be on your way. Good luck.

  10. Christine says:

    I find this comment to be very intriguing, “…the fact that dogs have an internal faculty of discrimination to go by feel, so that they can innately feel what a child’s sensitivities are and can self-modify on their own, they don’t need to be taught this.”, as it explains Diva’s connection to/with children. I have 2 grand-nephews (8 and 10) and Diva has a “special fondness” for Devon, the 8-year old. Whenever they come over, she attaches herself to Devon and follows him around. I also have a neighbor who is 7 years old who likes to come over and play with the puppers. The last time he came over, Diva went over and sat next to him making physical contact. She then looked back up at him with the softest, meltiest eyes and proceeded to lay down, belly-up and and as he was giving her a good belly rub she looked like she was in “dog heaven” with a “submissive grin” expression. I had wondered at this as she is typically very shy and fearful of people. Your insight has helped me to understand this in a much clearer light. Diva really is a great girl and I’m so glad to have her in my “family”!

  11. Shanty says:

    I will definitely try your suggestion Kevin and see what happens. It sounds really logical.

    As for the kids – I’m particularly interested in one association he has with a young child (18mths) whom he has always had the greatest connection with since infancy. She’s rolled into him and sucked on his paws when she was 4 mths, grabbed his face since 10mths etc. He and she are like magnets, but recently we’ve been telling her not to share her food with him and then when he was really hyper and putting his energy into a chew toy he barked at her when she tried to take it after I told her to leave it. Am I right to set boundaries or should I leave them to their shared food/no defending? It’s only this relationship I worry about because she’s so young and they are so physically close. He’s never been defensive to children otherwise.

  12. I read most of the articles from these sites and also added them to my RSS reader so I can read their future posts… I’ve learn that each and single dogs got their own behavior so i must adapt to them individually…

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Books about Natural Dog Training by Kevin Behan

In Your Dog Is Your Mirror, dog trainer Kevin Behan proposes a radical new model for understanding canine behavior: a dog’s behavior and emotion, indeed its very cognition, are driven by our emotion. The dog doesn’t respond to what the owner thinks, says, or does; it responds to what the owner feels. And in this way, dogs can actually put people back in touch with their own emotions. Behan demonstrates that dogs and humans are connected more profoundly than has ever been imagined — by heart — and that this approach to dog cognition can help us understand many of dogs’ most inscrutable behaviors. This groundbreaking, provocative book opens the door to a whole new understanding between species, and perhaps a whole new understanding of ourselves.
  Natural Dog Training is about how dogs see the world and what this means in regards to training. The first part of this book presents a new theory for the social behavior of canines, featuring the drive to hunt, not the pack instincts, as seminal to canine behavior. The second part reinterprets how dogs actually learn. The third section presents exercises and handling techniques to put this theory into practice with a puppy. The final section sets forth a training program with a special emphasis on coming when called.
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