I'm in love with another female.

Don't worry; this is not another Jimmy Swaggart confession. My wife knows all about this and has actually encouraged the relationship.

My new love is a dog named "Little Bit of Dixie." We call her simply "Dixie." She is a 7-month-old chocolate Labrador retriever. My son's consistent begging to get a Lab finally broke me down. I gave it to him for his 13th birthday. Had I known the joy she would bring to us, I would have given in years ago.

I've never attempted to train a dog. I have a lot to learn, but so far Dixie understands the basic commands of "sit, heel and here." She will sit for long periods of time until she is given permission to release, which is more than can be said for lots of children.

The instinct to retrieve is bred into this animal. There isn't much teaching necessary for retrieving.

Helping her develop the discipline of retrieving only on my command is where the hard work lies.

It's obvious that Dixie wants to please me, but it's also obvious that she struggles with wanting to please herself, too. I'm confident she understands my commands now. Her disobedience at times is no longer due to a lack of understanding but her desire to do what she wants to do.

For example, if she doesn't wait to retrieve the decoy from the pond before I give her permission by calling her name, it's not because she doesn't know she's supposed to wait; it's because she doesn't want to wait.

When I give a double "bleep-bleep" on the whistle and she delays in coming to me, it's not because she doesn't know what that whistle means; it's because she's busy doing something she wants to do instead of obeying the command.

Training Dixie has given me a new appreciation for the value of positive reinforcement. One day I was working with her and was not too pleased with her performance. My son John noticed my displeasure. He knows my tone of voice when I'm not pleased.

"You've got to praise her more when she obeys you, Dad," he said. "That's a good girl, Dixie. Good girl!" he said as he let her lick his face.

Those words have stuck with me lately: "You've got to praise her more." Part of training a dog is to reinforce positive behavior with praise, not treats.

There is room for scolding when the dog disobeys. But the key to the bulk of the training is praise. The dog has a need to be loved and accepted. With each positive reinforcement of the dog's good behavior comes a growing desire on the part of the animal to do the right things.

This lesson is a good lesson to learn in developing meaningful relationships and sustaining them with children and with adults.

In dating, for example, compliments are the norm. It's not unusual for a man to compliment his date: "You sure do look good in that dress." "Here, let me open the door for you." "Honey, these flowers are for you. Thank you for all you do for me."

But just a few years later it's not unusual for the compliments to stop and for the complaints to become the norm. "Honey, why didn't you iron my shirt?" "Don't you think you need to lose some weight?" "You call this a meal?"

Of course it works both ways. A woman will compliment a man during the dating stage and put up with some undesirable traits, only to nag and complain about the same behavior after the marriage. All the nagging and complaining usually does is keep him away for longer periods of time.

The trouble with men is that they think their woman will never change after marriage, and the trouble with women is that they think they'll change their man after marriage. After time, both learn they are wrong and the complaints start flying like darts. Praise becomes rare.

The things one used to be complimented for become expected and even demanded. After a while, doing what's expected without any praise creates a distance that widens with each complaint.

If you placed your complaints and your praises to others with whom you have an important relationship on a scale, which way would it tilt? If it tilts toward criticism, why not try a little praise? Find reason

s to give compliments. Thank people for their service, even if it's expected. Show your appreciation for a person's loyalty. Surprise your spouse with an unexpected note of thanks or words of appreciation.

Make sure your praise is not just a means to an end. In fact, if your pattern has not been to give out praise, don't be surprised if your kind words create a climate of suspicion. If your words of praise are only seducing words to get something you want, you'll be wasting your breath and further damage the relationship. Even so, common sense should tell us that we get more of what we want with praise than with criticism.

"Pleasant words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones." Proverbs 16:24 (NIV)

When praise comes from pure motives, it's one of the best ways to sustain a relationship that most likely began with such intentional words of kindness.

"A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver." Proverbs 25:11 (NIV)

And I might add, a lot less expensive too.

The Rev. Michael Helms is the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Moultrie.

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