Omitting “NO” From Your Vocabulary

On New Year’s Eve I posted a list of ten resolutions for dog owners and said I’d be elaborating on some of these in future blogs.  One of the resolutions was to omit the word “no” from our vocabularies as dog trainers, stating that “When a motivated dog is inhibited by an exclamation of “no”, he may become frustrated and then redouble his efforts behind your back. Most important, yelling at your dog may make him nervous around you. Instead of telling him what you don’t want him to do, try telling him what you’d like him to do, and reward him for it.”

Why is “NO” not a useful or desirable training tool? Here are a few reasons. I’m sure you can think of more (and please comment if you do).

1. Saying “NO” might inhibit your dog’s behavior for that moment, but it gives your dog no instructions about the correct thing to do.  Without knowing the correct thing to do, another undesirable behavior might simply follow the first. If you are interested in a persistently offered, appropriate behavior, it must be taught and reinforced.

2. In some cases, the behavior you are trying to stop is a strongly driven or excited behavior. By saying only “NO” you’re offering no alternative outlet for that energy. Highly aroused dogs easily channel that energy into other behaviors such as barking, mounting or aggression.

3. Even punishment has its rules. “Corrections” or punishment must be aversive, they must be associated 100% of the time with the target behavior, and they must happen during or immediately following a behavior — think of “immediate” as being the time it takes for a set of keys to drop from your hand to the floor. Responding to your dog’s behavior with “NO” probably doesn’t follow the first two rules. First, saying “NO” is not really aversive to many dogs (keep in mind that each dog is an individual, and what is unpleasant to one might be meaningless to another). It’s a soft word. This doesn’t mean that you should shout phonetically sharper words at your dog. It is simply a reminder that “no” is not really an informative word for many dogs. Second, and more important, you might not always be there to deliver “NO” to your dog’s ears. If it is only a “sometimes” consequence of misbehavior, it will not work.

4. Punishment — whether it is called “discipline”, “correction” or any other euphemism — can be frightening for your dog. In fact, in order for it to be effective (see #3), it has to be, by definition, nasty. This is why a verbal “No” is often followed by leash popping or using a shock collar. Assuming that you live with a dog because of love and attachment, it makes more sense and is kinder to give the dog instructions about appropriate behavior than to be punitive about inappropriate behavior. And if there are children in your family it is reassuring to know that they are interacting in gentle and safe (for all parties) ways with the family dog. Frightened dogs become hand-shy, fearfully aggressive and reluctant learners.

At this point you might be saying to yourself, “Fine, but aren’t you doing what you’re telling me NOT to do — discouraging me from saying “NO” without giving me instructions about the alternative?  In that light, here is a video by Emily Larlham in Sweden, whose youtube channel “kikopup”, is inspiring (for more information see www.dogmantics.com).

The Positive Interruptor

In future posts we’ll talk more about what “to” do, rather than what not to do. There are a great many positive, reinforcing words and actions that will make our dogs happy to work with us.

 

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5 Responses to Omitting “NO” From Your Vocabulary

  1. Hi Dr. Reisner,

    Excellent message today. I admit it’s really hard to change one’s own behaviors. For that reason, I think it’s helpful to practice mentally in advance for some situations that may arise. What will I ask my dog to do instead of ( ? The magic answer is the same thing we do with three year old children: Redirect. But be proactive. Redirect the individual just *before* doggy begins the unwanted behavior.

  2. Eva says:

    I have a question: what if “No” didn´t mean “stop what you´re doing”, but rather “this is not completely right, try something else”? I use it this way for example in gundog training: I throw two bumpers, then point to the one I want and send the dog to retrieve it. When she makes a mistake and starts towards the other one, I say “No” and she knows she has to go for the first one. It really doesn´t mean “stop, don´t do it at all” to her. What do you think?

    • Ilana Reisner says:

      Eva,
      It sounds like you’re saying the equivalent of “oops” or “try again”. Your dog then has another choice and has a chance to succeed and is rewarded. That’s not punishment and certainly isn’t aversive. It’s a good question!

  3. Nancy Yamin says:

    Another reason not to say “No” is that if your dog is doing the behavior to get your attention, and you say “No”, then this attention seeking bad behavior has worked. We want your dog to get your attention for being good, not for being bad. Put me in a room with any dog and within a few minutes I can usually tell you many behaviors that have earned him a “No” :)

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