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Saying "NO!"

We humans are a verbal culture.  We just LOVE to talk.  Dogs must think we are the noisiest species on the planet!  If so, they would be right.  Nearly everything we say is simply background noise for our dogs.  I would compare it to the music piped into elevators.  We know its there, but really don’t focus on what is actually playing.  I think all the talking we do is the same for our dogs.  I know for mine, the quickest way to put them to sleep is to start talking on the phone.  Within in a couple of minutes on the phone they are out cold!


One of the things that most people say repeatedly to their dogs is “NO.”  It usually starts as soon as the new puppy arrives home:  “NO!...don’t bite!”  “No!...stay off couch!”  “NO!...stay out of the trashcan!”  “NO!...don’t go potty in the house!”  “NO!...don’t chew my slipper!”  “NO!...don’t jump on me!”  And on and on!


There are several problems with using a verbal aversive like "NO."  First, dogs don't have a clue what "NO" means.  Again, English is not their native language.  Dogs communicate primarily through body language.  Therefore, dogs are not responding to the word, but instead to the body language we exhibit when we say “NO!”  They immediately know that we are upset and something is wrong but they have no way of knowing what it is.  Ahhhhhh, you say…but my dog “LOOKS” guilty, he must know what he’s done.  Sorry, but your dog is simply responding by exhibiting submissive body language to your threatening body language, and is communicating in the only way he knows how that he is not a threat.  You are only teaching your dog that you are unpredictable and sometimes a threat. 


As indicated above, we humans say "NO" all the time and apply it to many different situations and conditions.  The dilemma for the dog is:  which action does “NO” apply to?  How are dogs to understand that "NO" “means” to stop nipping in one instance, stop jumping up in another, as well as staying away from the counter and staying off the furniture, etc. etc. etc.  "NO" becomes so overused that dogs sooner or later simply don't even hear learning theory this is called "Learned irrelevance"...where the animal is unable to link a consequence to the sound and therefore decides it has no relevance to them and systematically learns to ignore it (this happens to our kids a lot too, by the way).  Probably all trainers have had dogs in their classrooms who think their name is "NO FIDO"!!!


The second problem is that it is very difficult for dogs to associate "NO" with the particular behavior that you are saying "NO" for.  You only have a very short time period, usually less than 2 seconds, after the dog does a behavior and the dog will be able to associate that behavior with the aversive "NO."  Furthermore, let us set aside for a moment the fact that the dog doesn't know the meaning of "NO" and also assume that you are able to deliver it within 2 seconds of the event.  Now, suppose at the instant you deliver the loud "NO", a child walks into the room (or any other event happens) and simultaneously the dog's attention is diverted to the child (they are much quicker than us in observing any movement in their immediate environment)...what have you just punished for???...Yup, the presence of the child, and you are totally unaware of it.  You wonder later why the dog isn’t learning and quite possibly, why is the dog suddenly fearful of junior.  Whatever is on the dog's mind at the moment of the delivery of the aversive is what gets punished.  So, how can we be sure we are punishing what we intend to punish???...we can’t.


Third, and for me this is the most important.  Nearly everyone who gets a dog, I think, starts out wanting to establish a wonderful and loving relationship.  However, the dog does dog stuff:  chewing, digging, peeing, barking, nipping, etc.  This is all normal behavior for dogs, but, unfortunately, it is not normal for human culture.  So people begin using punishments (and not necessarily severe punishments either, but they usually begin with "NO" and then it escalates when the behavior doesn't stop) in an attempt to stop the behavior.  The dog becomes confused at first (remember, from the dog's point of view, these behaviors are NORMAL, not BAD!), then frustration begins to set in which leads to stress in the dog.  Dogs handle stress by digging, chewing, peeing, barking, etc.  More “bad” behavior!  This then leads to more punishment.  It quickly becomes an endless cycle and usually ends up with very bad consequences for the dogs.  The originally desired relationship that has been irreparable damaged, not by the dog, but by the owner.


An alternative:  So what do you do when you catch your dog doing something he shouldn’t?  Instead of “NO!” use a more subtle word as an interrupter.  The following work well:  “oops!”  “sorry!”  “nope!”  “hey you there!”  “caught yah!”  “whatchadoin?” etc.


The big difference is that we say these things with a much different and less threatening body language.  Remember, it is too late after the beginning of the behavior to teach your dog NOT to have even started it.  The best you can do is to interrupt the behavior, give your dog a treat or praise for responding to you, and then give your dog something else to do that is incompatible with the undesired behavior (give him a chew toy for instance).  Finally, manage your dog’s environment so your dog will not engage in undesirable activities, and begin a training program to teach your dog what to do, instead of what not to do.


Saying “NO!” is a very difficult habit to break.  You will have to work hard at it at first.  When you take it out of the vocabulary and interaction with your dog you will enhance, and not harm, the relationship you are striving for with your dog.

Steve Benjamin, KPA CTP
Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner
Karen Pryor Academy Faculty Member
P.O. Box 5715
Endicott, New York 13763