The Rip Van Wrinkler, XXI, Issue 4, November 2017

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Training Conversation
On saying"no".

Interactive Toys.

Novice Trick Dog list.

Support Animal Chart.

Why Don’t We Just Say No?

by Andrea Stone - Originally published in the November 2009 Wrinkler, and written on September 03, 2009.

Zepar says "yes"!


No! We all say it, don’t we? But there are many trainers who advise against saying it to our dogs. Why is that? Doesn’t that mean you’re letting him get away with things? How can he learn right from wrong if you don’t tell him?

There are several reasons saying, “No!” to your dog is unadvisable. None of it has to do with permissiveness or it being “mean” to tell your dog “no”

    * “No” comes with a lot of emotional baggage for us humans.

    * We use “no” all the time and it loses saliency.

    * It’s difficult to get the timing of “no” just right.

    * “No” does not have inherent meaning to dogs.

    * “No” is sometimes inadvertently reinforcing to the dog.

    * “No” is not instructive.

There are many things you can do that are much more constructive than saying “no” but first, let’s talk about the reasons it’s not a good idea.

“No” comes with a lot of emotional baggage for us humans.

Think about your state of mind when you find yourself telling your dog “no”. How do you feel? Frustrated? Angry? Irritated? Probably; it’s natural! We cannot hide this from our dogs, experts at body language that they are. This means that “no” is punishing to your dog. Depending on your dog’s temperament and how you say “no” this can just be a nagging annoyance to them that has little effect or it can be severe enough to damage your relationship with the animal.

In the latter case, you may see a change in behavior but the dog is likely not actually learning anything. It may appear that the dog “knows” what “no” means because he has stopped doing whatever it is that upset you. However the truth is that the dog is simply shutting down and no longer offering any behavior at all, good or bad. If the dog learns something it may only be that his owner is scary. There are dogs who, when their owners bellow “NO!” at them may cringe or perhaps even submissively urinate. Or, more commonly, the dog may simply freeze or look “sorry” or “guilty” in an attempt to appease you. This is not the relationship most of us want with our dogs!

At the other end of the spectrum is the dog that pretty much ignores “no” causing the owner to repeat it over and over. Most people find themselves escalating in tone and becoming more frustrated.  This is not an effective punishment, nor is it a command. So what’s the point?

We use “no” all the time and it loses saliency.

Take for instance our owner who repeats “no” over and over to her dog. Has her dog learned what his owner wants him to do? It would appear not, as he is not actually responding to it. When we repeat words to our dogs they become droning noise like the hum of a refrigerator.  Something easily ignored, though perhaps slightly annoying. The dog in our example may stop what he is doing when his owner finally gives up, but the word has no relevancy at all, except perhaps to telegraph his owner’s frustration.

Additionally, we use “no” in conversation all the time even when not dealing with the dog. A word that is oft repeated with no meaning attached to it for the dog will lose importance in his world. This is exactly the reason we counsel clients to never repeat commands.

It’s difficult to get the timing of “no” just right.                          

When used as a punisher, the timing is very difficult to get right. Most of us say “no” far too late, either once the behavior is already in process or after the fact.

Take for instance jumping up. When do we typically say “no”? After the dog has already jumped up and now has his paws on our guests. So we are not punishing the act of the dog coming up, but the paws remaining on a person. What often results is a pogo dog that bounces on and off visitors. How annoying is that?

Sometimes we even say “no” to our dogs when in fact they are doing the very thing we want. A perfect example is the dog that doesn’t come when called. Many well meaning dog owners, when collecting their recalcitrant friend, will wave a finger in the dog’s face and tell him “no” for refusing to return. However, the dog is in the owner’s presence having allowed her to catch him or perhaps even reluctantly returned. So what has the dog learned? That coming to his owner is not the right thing to do. Ooops!

“No” does not have inherent meaning to dogs.

In as much as they are a part of our families and beloved companions the truth is that dogs just don’t speak English. “No” is a very general, abstract concept that dogs do not implicitly understand. These manners of thinking – general and abstract – are not what dogs do best. In fact, we know that dogs do not make generalizations easily and we have no evidence that they understand abstracts.  We have an innate understanding of the word, but have you ever thought how you would explain it to someone who has no frame of reference? It’s not easy!

“No” is sometimes inadvertently reinforcing to the dog.

Just as there are kids who seek negative attention because it is the only attention they get, so it is with dogs. We often ignore our pups when they are behaving well, chewing quietly on a bone or relaxing on a dog bed, but when they steal our socks or start pulling on our shoe laces, wow, does the fun begin!

Telling your dog “no” is attention, and for some dogs, even when we say it in a manner that we think is punishing, it is actually reinforcing. After all, they have gained the attention of the most important person they know: you!

“No” is not instructive.

This is probably the most important reason we do not recommend using “no” with dogs. When training and modifying behavior results are gained more easily and quickly when we teach are dogs what we do want.  Studies actually show that even at the chemical level, animals learn much more from their successes than from failures. (July 30 issue of the journal Neuron)

“No” does not actually tell your dog what he should be doing instead of chewing on your shoes, barking at the neighbors or rummaging through the garbage. Aside from learning that you are angry, frustrated and possibly scary, what does your dog really learn when you tell him “no”? If you really think about it, the answer is nothing. “No” does not give your dog any information or alternate behavior about how to gain a reward, be it a treat, a game of ball or your affection. Rather than telling Rover “no” when he jumps up, it is much more effective to teach him to sit when greeting guests. He will remember that sitting gains him attention, scratches and perhaps even something tasty!

There are many useful and effective alternatives to saying “no” that will actually help your dog learn and will also keep you from feeling frustrated and at a loss of what to do. In addition to teaching alternative, mutually exclusive behaviors (sit vs jumping on people) you can do yourself and your dog a favor by managing his environment. If your dog loves to chew leather or is teething, put away those $300 designer shoes. It just avoids problems before they start. Enrich your dog’s environment by giving him lots of things he can do, and reward him for it. Tell him how wonderfully he operates that work to eat puzzle and what a champion digger he is when going for the gold in his designated digging pit. If you find your dog doing something you’d rather he not, such as grabbing pillows off the couch and giving them a good shake, interrupt him. “Ah-ah” is a strange enough noise to get your dog’s attention, and then you can redirect him to one of his own plush toys. Then be sure you tell him how wonderful he is at giving that doll the what-for. And in the end, you will be much happier too when you are not constantly pointing out to your dog where he’s failed but teaching him how to be good and rewarding him for doing so. Seeing the glass as half full really does make life that much more pleasant for both people and dogs!

Andrea with Turkish.

Regan Stone - Trick Dog Performer video

How about some interactive toys?

You can find these easily online - Amazon. Not expenise. Good fun!

This is Gilda. She thought it was a snap.

AKC Novice trick dog test list. Dogs with CGC only need to do 5. Otherwise, 10.

___ Balance beam (walk on low board a few inches off floor)

___ Bark on cue (“Speak”)

___ Crawl (dog on belly, crawls at least 5 feet)

___ Fetch it and give (ball, toy, etc- bring to handler, release)

___ Find it (find treat hidden under cup)

___ Get your ___________. (Leash, brush, name of toy)

___ Get in (gets in box)

___ Get on (gets on low platform or step - 4 paws)

___ Hand signals (down, sit, or come) _______________

___ High five

___ Hold (3 seconds)

___ Jump (thru a low hoop or over a low bar)

___ Kennel up (go in crate, stay in until released)

___ Kiss (point to cheek)

___ Paws up (2 front paws on low stool or step)

___ Push-ups (sit, down, sit, down, sit, down)

___ Shake hands

___ Spin in circle

___ Touch it (hand or target stick)

___ Tunnel (agility tunnel or child’s tunnel)

___ Other: Handler’s choice:_______________________

___ Other: Handler’s choice:_______________________

Oakley Meriaux studying the trick dog list.

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