The Dog Who’d Take Praise Over Food

Mick, Mr. Border Collie, is having me think about language, and comfort levels, and biddability. He came to me at age 2, after having lived with a traditional herding trainer. His native language of relating to people is different from the way I usually relate to my dogs. He’s been studying my language and is getting better and better at it – much like someone who’s learning a new language as an adult.

At the same time, I’ve been learning Mick’s language, and I’ve discovered a number of interesting things: when Mick first got here, he didn’t know it was okay to take food from a person’s hand – not only was it permitted, it was encouraged to do so! However, he had a very strong concept of verbal strokes. A stroke is a unit of social recognition: if I smile at you when passing you in the street, that’s a stroke. If you respond by saying “Good morning!”, that’s another stroke. Back to Mick, who greatly appreciates verbal strokes. When I talk to him in a soft voice – and that has been true from the day I first met him – he’ll respond by wagging gently. If he’s tense, I’ll see his body relax. The tucked tail will come out, the closed, hard mouth will open slightly, the tension in his ears will fade; piercing looks will turn into soft eyes.

While Mick didn’t know what to do with the treat I was holding out, he knew very well what praise meant. His body language showed that he greatly appreciated receiving it. Even out on a walk, when I’d call him, he’d soon come, and not take the treat – but he’d start wagging upon hearing my voice. And his recall got better – my praise was indeed reinforcing.

Is the effectiveness of praise as a reinforcer purely due to what we call “will to please” and consider an inherent trait? How much of it is environmental rather than hereditary? Could it be that the Border Collie’s upbringing has given him an appreciation of verbal strokes that is more widely generalized than what we typically see in R+ raised dogs?


border collie malinois personality

Mick & Grit

Let’s take a look at Grit. She has been with me since puppyhood. Grit has a strong will to please, too. For the purpose of this discussion, let’s define will to please or biddability as the willingness to work for the acknowledgement of one’s efforts alone – for praise, pets, or other non-tangible paychecks. Grit will do things I ask her to even when she’s exhausted; she’ll do the same thing 20 times in a row, and she’ll try as hard the 20st time as the first one. She’ll come when I call her even when she’s too hot to eat or isn’t interested in my treats. She does things because I ask her to – even if I don’t pay well – and doesn’t question my wishes.

Grit’s biddability is tied to me as a person. She wouldn’t work for just anyone 20 times in a row. In fact, she wouldn’t work for anyone else at all, unless that person first built a relationship with her. Grit is short-fused (like most dogs in her lines), she’s hot-headed and intense. But never has she growled at me or said NO to something she knew how to do. Grit makes me feel special because it is clear that her will to please is tied to me as a person.

Mick is like Grit – but then again, he also isn’t. Mick, even though we are only just building our relationship, will come when I call him in difficult situations, and be all wiggly and happy if I praise him. Mick is a soft dog: he appreciates verbal strokes, and shrinks away from loud voices, raised arms, and objects being carried. At the same time, he is – for lack of a better word – opinionated. He has growled at me more than once when asked to go into or come out of a crate or through a gate before he was ready to do so. He’s not only interested in pleasing me, but also in standing his ground. He cares what I think, yet speaks his mind.

Mick’s appreciation for verbal strokes is not tied to me as a person. In contexts he’s comfortable (herding), he will work for the praise of others, and he’ll do so confidently. He has worked for two herding trainers here in Guatemala on the first day he met them. He responded to their voice and body language beautifully. He instantaneously recognized that they spoke his jargon – the jargon of working sheep – and he engaged in a conversation with them without hesitation. He didn’t appreciate their physical pressure – but he could read it; he spoke it as fluently as he understands praise. Mick’s appreciation of strokes is a well-generalized trait. Grit’s biddability isn’t. Why is that?

Interestingly, neither Mick nor Grit are confident around strangers. Grit does well as long as I provide clear leadership around new people. Mick does well as long as he can talk sheep with new people. He’s fluent in the language of herding – no matter whether he has talked to the person sharing his jargon hundreds of times or never before. It’s fascinating to see how suspicious he’ll be of a new person visiting my house, yet how effortlessly he’ll work for a new person as soon as sheep are in the picture. The parallel to human nature is hard to miss. If you’re an introvert and a dog person, you may not know what to do if thrown into a random social gathering. You’ll be like Mick, slinking around the edges of the room, picking at the label of your beer bottle, wishing you were somewhere else. But put you into a room full of geeky dog people, and you’ll make friends in a heartbeat.

Maybe Grit simply doesn’t have her version of sheep – she doesn’t have that jargon that ties into a genetically hardwired passion of hers, and can easily be shared with others who share that passion as well. Maybe the lesson of Grit and Mick is that every dog needs her sheep. (Who would you be if you didn’t have dog geekery?)

Nature and nurture can’t be pulled apart – the two are always working hand in hand. In the end, the reason that Grit is who she is, just like the reason that Mick is who he is – and the reason I am who I am – are related to both genetics and experiences. Genetics define the frame of what is possible. Experiences decide what parts of that framework get colored in.

Would Mick’s biddability be as well generalized if he had been raised in a different kind of home? Would Grit be as selectively biddable if she had been raised in a more traditional training environment? Maybe less so? Maybe more so? Would she, like Mick, be able to talk to strangers if she had been doing instinct sports all her life? Would Mick be more dependent on a single person if he’d never met a sheep? Does biddability generalize if verbal strokes are a limited resource rather than unconditionally given? Is the very reason Grit is the incredibly biddable dog she is due to the fact that verbal strokes, and positive regard, aren’t something she has had to earn? Oh, we cannot know! But it’s fascinating to think about anyways …

Is your dog biddable? How does their biddability express itself, and what do you attribute it to? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments!


Chrissi runs Chrissi’s Dog Training in Antigua, Guatemala. She also teaches online at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, and for the Pet Professionals Program. Her Calling All Dogs class class (FDSA) starts today. Gold spots are sold out, but you can still join at the Silver or Bronze level!

11 thoughts on “The Dog Who’d Take Praise Over Food

  1. heidi mendoza says:

    Hi chrissie! Pedigrees, genetics, characteristics and behaviours are my favourite topics! I have messaged you my dog’s pedigree. Interestingly I know that his parents and siblings do show very similar traits. One of the behaviours which I have found fascinating is that when my dog’s dad is at a herding clinic (he is the instructor’s dog), and he wasn’t needed to work the sheep, he would lie with his head turned away from the sheep and shut his eyes. I used to think he was sleeping and it was one of the reasons I chose a puppy from him. He is a very highly work motivated and driven herding dog. His ability to switch off when required around work is superb. I know many BCs struggle with this – they are in a constant state of readiness which is draining and I don’t think that healthy for them mentally. My dog also shows the very same ability to switch off when required around work. When I work my other dogs at agility, obedience etc and it is not his turn he lies down with his head turned away (and sometime his eyes shut), however I am not sure if he is sleeping. It is an unusual behaviour and definitely not something I have trained! Could this switch off be a behaviour which is strongly influenced by genetics?

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      That’s definitely an unusual behavior – and what a nice off-switch to have on a dog! I’m pretty sure there are genetic elements to it… Sarah Stremming talks about this on one of her podcast episodes. If I remember correctly, she comes to the conclusion that being able to relax/stay calm when it isn’t the dog’s turn to work is valued (and therefore selected for) in working-bred Border Collies, and less sought after (not selected for, and therefore much rarer) in sports-bred Border Collies. And the fact that both your boy and his dad have this particular way of lying down with the head turned away from the action without either you nor his breeder having trained the behavior … Another argument for a genetic factor!

      Speaking of behavioral traits that are strongly influenced by genetics: we know that separation anxiety and the propensity to bark fall into this category as well! Isn’t this fascinating, and surprising?

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      “Shaping” is a particular training method. It’s usually combined with a clicker or other marker signal. It’s a little bit like the “Hot and Cold” game we used to play as kids.

      In this particular example, Phoebe doesn’t know what I want of her. I’m clicking successive approximations of walking around the plant, using only the click and treats to communicate which way I’d like her to look or go: she tries things, and if they get her closer to the plant, I’ll click (the equivalent of saying “warm,” “warmer,” and, eventually, “hot” in the children’s game).

      Check out this articule for an introduction to the theory and practice of shaping:

  2. Heidi says:

    Thank you for such a thought provoking post! I have an isds BC from trial winning lines. This my first BC who has been bred this way (as opposed to a general work dog lines). I can’t believe his level of verbal responsiveness! Both to praise and negative verbals/tones. I can’t say anything in anger or worry even if it is not directed at him as he gets upset and slinks away. On the plus side praise lifts him up and brings him the greatest joy. When I physically pet him he turns into the most wiggly happy soul. He is highly driven, intelligent and exceptionally easy to work. However he is unbelievably sensitive and desperate to be right. I think he has been bred for extreme verbal responsiveness. Although this makes for a fantastic working dog I don’t know if this is the best genetics for dog mental health? Either way I feel privileged to share my life with such a special dog. Your article really captured the differences in human connection that can be seen in these fascinating working dogs!

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      Thank you for sharing your observations about your dog, Heidi! He sounds like the kind of dog I’d have a lot of fun working with … I have a soft spot for highly responsive, sensitive dogs.

      You’re raising a good point about mental health though! I suspect in the right kind of home, dogs like him will flourish and make wonderful workers. But in a home that doesn’t match their personality, they might not do very well … Or maybe they are more adaptable than we think they are!

      Do you know whether your dog’s siblings or parents share similar traits? (Also, out of curiosity and since I’m very interested in ISDS BCs with the kinds of characteristics you describe: would you let me know his lines/registered name? I’d love to look at his pedigree! (Feel free to send me an email if you don’t want to share it publicly!)

  3. Melissa Breau says:

    I’ve been working on his chin rest with this, mostly 🙂

    And I *don’t* know that about any of his siblings! I don’t think any of them are doing much training, TBH. But it would be fun if there was a way to find out! I will say his momma is probably not the same way.

  4. Alycia N. says:

    Another well written, insightful look at an aspect of dog training/owning/observation that I have never seen looked at or contemplated before. I love your blog, dogs and insight! Thank you for sharing 🙂

  5. Melissa Breau says:

    Love this line – “Genetics define the frame of what is possible. Experiences decide what parts of that framework get colored in.”

    As for your final question – Levi would often prefer pets and praise to food. So much so that I’ve been playing with adding a marker cue to it, and training with it intentionally. I can see behavior change happening, and the behaviors im trying to reinforce getting stronger, so I know it’s reinforcing… lots of fun to play with!!

    • Chrissi Schranz says:

      Very cool! What’s an example for a behavior you have intentionally reinforced with praise and pets rather than tangible reinforcers? Do you know any of Levi’s siblings, and whether they are similarly motivated by praise and pets?

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