Are we bad for telling our dogs that they’re “Good?”

Most of us tend to reward the furry little creatures that we have in our lives with words of affirmation. We say “good girl” or “good boy” to let them know how we feel about them, and we in turn believe that they understand that affirmation. But what if that isn’t the case, what if they do not understand us as well as we think they do? 

That habit that we have, myself included, of telling our dogs that they are either good or bad stems from a study done on wolves in 1947. That study informed an entire generation of dog training philosophy centered around the fact that dogs respond positively to Alpha behavior. The keen among you will recognize this method from The Dog Whisperer himself, Cesar Milan

A bunch of wolves with the “Alpha”:

The study was done on wolves to observe aggression and other behavior in captivity. The findings suggested that one wolf prevailed as an alpha. This conclusion was supported by studies on primates and other mammals at the time. It was then globalized to all wolves in general and eventually domesticated dogs.

However, more recent studies of wolves in the wild reveal that there is no rigid alpha-beta structure in wolf packs, and that both parents in the pack contribute to defending and raising the young. 

It reveals how much our belief that we should train our dogs by establishing dominance is predicated on a fundamental misunderstanding. When we say good boy to affirm or bad boy to admonish we are being what we perceive to be be as the alpha. However, dogs don’t actually follow this hierarchical structure. 

We now know that positive reinforcement payment is the superior way to train our dogs. But dogs, and most animals that aren’t human, respond much better to tone and well-timed actions than words. Like the Humane Society says, “Dogs don’t care about money, they care about praise.”

A cute doggy getting a treat: Shutterstock

So yes, it’s still important to praise your dog when they are being good, but the words “good dog” in and of themselves don’t actually mean anything. Praising their good behavior through treats and short words that convey tone is much more effective and meaningful to them. So, I think I’m going to try and stop telling my dogs that they’re good or bad and listing the things they’ve done well, and start using treats, petting, and other rewards to let them know that I approve. 

After all, if my dog is being a good dog, then I want him to know it.