Who’s a good boy?

Dalcash Dvinsky
The Bunny Years
Published in
6 min readAug 13, 2023

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It’s a good question.

I probably call my dog a good boy eighty times a day, but why and when? Is he really a good boy so often? If not, what is he instead?

First of all, it needs to be said that Bunny doesn’t really know what this expression means. He has no concept of ‘good’ or ‘boy’ or ‘good boy’ or anything. His side of the story is that a ‘good boy’ tends to be followed by a bit of food, or at the minimum by some friendly interaction with me. So, he has learned that ‘good boy’ means that something good is going happen to him, and therefore he looks at me. That expectation in turn has become a habit, and as a result, the ‘good boy’ itself is very positive for him. It’s a noise that makes him feel good. But it’s really just a noise.

Technically speaking, I introduced it as a marker for behavior that I like to reinforce. A marker is helpful when I can’t deliver the reward immediately, right on the nose. Even with food it is often difficult to have the treat in front of him in exactly the moment when the right behaviour occurs. Marking is a matter of timing, it needs to be precisely in the right moment, how else can he understand what it is exactly that I want from him? So, instead of using the food directly, or any kind of other reward, I use words (or a clicker, or any other sound) to mark the behaviour. This buys me a couple of seconds to deliver the actual reward. These marker cues need to be linked with the reward before I can use them as marker. So, I spent a lot of time just saying ‘good boy’ to him followed by a bit of food to build that association. Same with his name. Same with the clicker noise. Same with a bunch of other words and noises. This is how he has learned what ‘good boy’ means. This is how he has learned that I am, in fact, his good boy, the person who makes him happy.

Also, in the process of saying these words so often, they have lost their usual, literal meaning for me. I worked for a while on the tone, how I say it. Sometimes I imitate the way dog trainer Robert Cabral says ‘good boy’ to his dogs. I can’t even describe it. It’s sounds more like buoooayy in the end. Sometimes I say it more like a sweet, silly song. With dogs, you want to deliver your verbal cues in a similar voice and tone, all the time. I can’t suddenly say ‘good boy’ in an angry tone, or with a very long gooooood and expect Bunny to understand it. It needs to be like a click from the clicker. Consistent, reliable. Good boy. I say it so often that I accidentally also use it with female dogs. It’s just a noise, you know. It’s not even words.

But since it IS words, it is worth noting that it contains useful information — when other people say it. When approaching other dogs I need to quickly establish their sex, because Bunny’s reaction will be night and day for a male and a female. From a distance it’s kind of hard to spot genitals, especially for long-haired dogs. Bunny often figures it out earlier, using the more primordial technique of sniffing the grass where the other dog has peed, or holding his nose into the wind, or observing subtle signals in the body language. He is just better at this stuff. Except when the owners call their dogs and tell them they are a ‘good boy’ or ‘good girl’. That’s the one situation where the phrase does have a meaning that only I can understand. Putting meaning into random noises is kind of like a cheat code for humans.

Okay, so, let’s turn back to the original question: What makes Bunny a ‘good boy’, or more precisely, since those words don’t have any meaning and should therefore only be used in quotation marks, let’s rephrase that question: What makes me call him a ‘good boy’?

The most obvious case is when I tell him to do something, and he actually does it. Like sit or down or come or heel. This is often what we mean by dog training, just identifying behaviours we like, rewarding them when they happen, and then putting them on cue, so that we can ask for them later on. But he is also a good boy when is doing things that are not on cue. For example, just looking at me randomly makes him a good boy. Or, more difficult, staying calm and friendly with other dogs. Very good boy! Staying calm in general. Ignoring the cat. Being in control and with me. In general, pattern of behaviour that indicate that he is paying attention to me.

I also call him a good boy just for being a good citizen and for not boycotting every single thing we are trying to accomplish. He has phases like that, and it’s cute for only a few minutes, then it’s annoying. And you can’t just pick him up and carry him away. Just going along makes him a good boy. Jumping into the car without protesting. Waiting for me. Going along in a certain direction. Standing still while I try to put on the harness. Coming into the house in the evening. All this normal every day stuff, that you need to have any kind of peaceful coexistence. He still gets his wishes often enough, but you can’t just have someone who always does the opposite.

In all these instances ‘good boy’ is really the marker for desired behaviour, a crucial part of our vocabulary, a kind of shorthand for hours of training. But beyond that, eventually, it also became one of these things that I just say, at random times, when I want to say something nice to him. It’s like giving him a sausage for no good reason, just to be nice to him. It’s stupid when nice things only happen for a reason. Good boy, Bunny. I say it to calm him down, to make him feel good, to reassure him that everything is okay. That he is okay. I imagine it feels to him like something he can hold on to, with all his frantic thoughts and restless instincts. Kind of like the railing of a balcony that stops you from tumbling downwards. A verbal reminder of trust we have built up over years. But obviously that’s just speculation. Maybe he still thinks ‘sausage’ even when I use it in this context.

But then again my tone will change with context. And since ‘good boy’ is just a noise, and not words, it can mean three different things for him.

Sometimes I even say it when he is asleep. I realise that ‘good boy’ is like a mantra, not just for him, but also for me, in the same way that prayer is for religious people. It’s something to hold on to, a path, a process, a key to a timeless world that transcends our strict daily routine, our problems with dogs and sheep, and beyond the feeling of being tired all the time from too much dog walking. And maybe it’s also an expression of my belief that, no matter what, he is in fact a good boy, because all dogs are good dogs.

And then he wakes up and mutters: Go to sleep, Aleks, you are a creep.

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