Lessons in Puppy Ownership: All Praise is Do

Olive enjoys a moment with Eugene, the stuffed duck.

I’m not known for a sunny disposition. I don’t smile unless I’m happy, I don’t laugh unless I think something is funny and I only give praise when I mean it.

Then, we got a puppy.

In this week’s edition of Lessons in Puppy Ownership, you’ll find me genuinely pleased at the progress our puppy is making. We started exercising the crap out of her at night, so the overnight whining has subsided. She’s learned to smack a cowbell that hangs from our doorknob whenever she needs to go outside. She’s not just following on the leash — she’s leading, and she’s shown great ability at scaling seven-foot piles of snow.

Properly raising a puppy requires heavy, enthusiastic praise for the most menial of accomplishments:

The puppy pooped outside. You did it! You pooped in the yard! Good girl! Great poop! Excellent squatting! Way to push!

The puppy ate its food. Good girl! You chew that food! I’m so proud of you! You’re chewing and then swallowing and doing it over again! You’re so smart!

The puppy went into its kennel. Sweet Jesus, you’re a good dog! I could puke joy! You’re so good at knowing where you sleep at night even after sleeping there for just the past three weeks! Good girl!

Olive knows I’m a bit embarrassed about the enthusiastic praise bit and she uses it to humiliate me. On our walks, she’ll abruptly stop into a statue if there’s people nearby. She won’t budge until I start in with the compliments. It’s not the words, but the tone — she wants this baritone to speak in a soprano in what amounts to nonsense generally reserved for babies.

The problem is praise works. We’ve tried bribery via treats, but nothing’s more effective than a pat on the head and some bubbly prose. Our puppy is a proud member of the child confidence movement. She would be the clumsy tee ball player who after a season of whiffing and slowing up the game would still expect the most valuable player award.

Here’s the thing: I can spend the rest of her puppyhood blushing whenever I’m in earshot of another human being so long as it means she’s a happy, healthy dog for the next decade or more. There was a night last week where her whining started at 1 a.m. and didn’t subside until 5 a.m. At one point, I grabbed my iPhone to read up on the Humane Society’s surrendering process.

Since then, she’s been great. I’m not saying this is a product of my high-pitched praise so much as her acclimating to her new home and owners. However, each day, as she picks up a new trick or shows she’s a little more down with the system, the praise gets easier.

What’s better? When I praise her, I mean it.

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