What is “No!” Really Telling Your Dog?

man yelling at dog smallThis past weekend my husband and I saw the film Whiplash. The story centers around a teenage music student whose teacher is…well, I can’t really print the words that would accurately describe him. But at one point the student, a drummer, is asked to play solo a few bars of a piece the group has been working on. “That’s not my tempo!” the teacher yells. The boy tries again. “Not my tempo!” the man barks. And so it goes. After a number of tries there is blood on the boy’s hands, and the despotic instructor just keeps yelling.

What does this have to do with dogs? Well, consider the way the teacher reprimands the boy. Does “Not my tempo!” give the drummer any concrete information? It certainly tells him that he’s got it wrong; but beyond that, there is nothing useful to work from. Given that the man couldn’t seem to instruct without yelling, even yelling, “Faster!” or “Too damned slow!” would have offered a clue. And yet, many dog owners seem to be constantly yelling “No!” at their dogs. Sure, a dog will stop what he’s doing when that one-syllable, sharp sound is uttered, but does it tell the dog what he’s expected to do, exactly? Nope.

Take the example of a dog who is chewing on something he shouldn’t. The owner could yell, “No!” and the dog would stop momentarily, having been startled by the sound. Depending on the dog, he might then go right back to chewing or not. But what if, instead, the dog were instructed to “Leave it!” Assuming the dog has been trained to understand the meaning of the words, that would let the dog know that the owner is requesting that he kindly move away from the object. “Leave it!” is an instructional reprimand, whereas, “No!” is more like “Not my tempo!” which leaves a dog wondering what exactly he did wrong, thereby increasing the likelihood that he’ll get it wrong again. Once “Leave it!” has been used, the owner can redirect the dog to a more appropriate behavior.

A helpful exercise that I’ve used with training clients is to draw a vertical line down the middle of a piece of paper. On the left side, list all the behaviors you’d like your dog to stop doing. Number one might be jumping on visitors at the door, number two pulling on leash, and number three, begging for food at the table. Now, on the right side, jot down what you’d like the dog to do instead. For number one, the doorbell could become the dog’s cue to go and lie down on his bed. Number two could simply be “walking by my side,” while number three’s food begging could be solved with a down-stay on a nearby dog bed during family mealtimes.

Thinking of what we’d like dogs to actually do instead of just shouting a frustrated, “No!” takes a bit of forethought, but it communicates information the dog can use. In the long run, issuing calm cues that tell the dog what we’d like him to do solves problems much more efficiently with less stress all around. Now, that’s my tempo.
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You can find my books, seminar DVDs and more at http://www.nicolewilde.com.

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9 Responses to What is “No!” Really Telling Your Dog?

  1. Barbara Brandt says:

    I just wish you lived near me so you could train me to handle Kennedy better. 😦

    Barbara Brandt Lovingly rescued by Baxter, Minx, Kennedy, and Bailey Bug

    *”If there are no dogs in Heaven, then when I die I want to go where they went.”* *♥*~Will Rogers ~

  2. martasyoung says:

    Reblogged this on Barking Up the Right Tree and commented:
    This is why I discourage the use of ‘no’ in training, especially in the initial phase of learning a new behavior. No simply means…not that… but doesn’t give any feedback as to what you are looking for.

  3. Great article I love the way you write, you paint pictures with your words..with regard to telling your dog No, I believe it is o.k. to say No to your dog, but I agree that simply saying No is not going to help the dog learn..instead what needs to happen it for people to follow up the No with an appropriate behavior..for example if a dog is chewing on something they are not supposed to, say “No!”, in a serious I mean it tone of voice to stop the behavior, I too feel that getting frustrated and yelling does not good at all and in fact can exacerbate the problem, and then give the dog something that is chew appropriate. I think as long as you educate your dog about what “No” means then it will have the same effect as telling them to “leave it”

  4. rabbiadar says:

    I found when my children were growing up that it was much more useful to tell them what I wanted rather than what I didn’t want. Then they had something to DO. Dogs are no different than the rest of us – they would like to please, if they just had a clue what we want.

    • Jenny H says:

      I found when my children were growing up that it was much more useful to tell them to STOP! when they were about to run in front of a truck, than explain what I wanted instead!
      To me “NO” is a very useful word both for kids and dogs. It is an interrupter and with both kids and dogs interrupters can save lives.
      Afterwards when the danger is averted, then you can say “Look before you cross the road” or “Sit and wait for permission to cross the road.”
      I save both my husband’s and my life a couple of weeks age when I simply screamed. Yes he was about to pgo ut from a side rad, into the path of a speeding vehicle 😦 Thankgoodness for ‘interrupters’!

  5. Jenny H says:

    I agree with you, BUT …
    Our commands/cues are exactly what we have taught them to mean. no more and no less.
    In my experience people who yell “Leave it!” at their dogs are every bit as negative as those who yell “No!” Neither tells the dog what you want it to do instead.
    I have used ‘No!’ frequently as an ‘interrupter’ — but it needs to be followed by another ‘instruction’ — ‘Come here’, “Lie down” Go to your crate” or “Four on the floor” or etc, etc.

    Then I have known people whose “Come here” or “Stop barking” or “Don’t eat the cat’s food” mean absolutely nothing to the dog, because the ‘cue’ has never been followed by any consequence to the dog whether it does as the English words mean or continues to avoid the person, or carries on barking or eating the cat’s food.
    In these situations “No!” would do every bit as well, or better if the dog had been taught that “no” means “stop what you are doing now.”

  6. “No” is a correction not a command. Enough said.

  7. wildewmn says:

    Hmm, I’m not sure why my comment disappeared…but basically it said I assumed when recommending that someone use “Leave it!” that the dog had been taught what the words mean. Somehow that was obvious in my mind but apparently not on the page! Also that the dog would then be redirected. I have edited those lines just a bit so what is on the paper matches better what was in my head! Thank you all for your comments. 🙂

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