The Nonsense of No

We all do it: fuss at our dogs, yell at them to stop doing this or that.  More often than not our rants begin with a sharp stern “NO!”  The funny thing is with most of our dogs the “no” results in nary a pause in the action, a look of glum recognition followed by more of whatever it is we wanted him to stop doing.   The sad truth is, “no” is a nonstarter.  It doesn’t work.   And yet we keep barking away.  “NO!”

The main problem with “no,” of course, is that it’s devoid of any instructive content.  What does “no” mean?   If a dog is jumping on our guest, for instance, and we yell “no” what are we communicating to the dog?  Maybe we’re letting him know we’re angry, but we’re not conveying even an inkling of what we want him to do.  Part of the reason is because “no” means so many things to us.  We yell it when the dog is jumping up, but also when he’s running away, digging, barking, and pulling on his leash.  It’s too vague.  It also violates one of the golden rules of dog training:  a command can only have one meaning, not many.  Inference, creating meaning out of context, clues, and the subtleties of language is a uniquely human quality (and not always one of our best).

Of course, we humans are clever.  So we add the offending behavior after the word “no” to help our dogs understand our indignation.  We say “no jump,” or “no bark.”  In my many years as a dog trainer, and the many more as a human being on this planet, I’ve never heard a dog use a verbal language.  The idea that our dog understands our particular meaning of the word “jump,” much less its antithesis, is a huge leap of logic (pun fully intended).  They are linear, not relational, thinkers.  Plus they follow visual cues better than words.  Never mind the minutiae of behavior science.  Yelling no-anything just makes us sound like cartoon cavemen.  It’s silly.

So what are we wordy creatures to do?  We just want our dogs to STOP IT (whatever it is).  Are we hopeless?  No.  Let’s try this instead.  What do we want our dogs to do?  When our dog is jumping, what would we prefer he was doing?  Sit, perhaps.  We can teach that.  “Sit”, when taught properly generally has one meaning (place bottom on ground).  Awesome!  I can teach my dog to sit, and if he jumps on a guest I have something clear and meaningful to yell at him.  “Sit!”  His bottom hits the ground – jumping ceases.  It might take some practice, sure, but the meaning is clear.  Do this, not that.

Some of us will still yell out “no” in anger (move me to the head of the mea culpa line).  That’s okay if we just remember this.  Follow up with a clear instruction.  If we see a dog digging a hole in the back yard, we might bark out “no” in our justified anger.  But then what?  Add meaningful instruction.  “Stella, come.”  Stella is my dog’s name and she has a pretty decent coming-when-called.  It’s liable to get her away from the hole, at least long enough for me to get her on to a new task.  “No” is quickly forgotten.  The instructive part was calling her to me.

Try this, too.  When your dog does something right, pick a word that means they’re getting a tasty bit of food.  The word should be short and crisp, timed exactly with the good deed to let them know a food reward is on the way.  That’ll get them learning.  Actions result in delicious consequences.  The word marks the moment of success.  Of course, I have a favorite word for this kind of teaching.  “Yes.”

Michael Baugh CDBC, CPDT-KSA teaches dog training in Houston, TX.  He specializes in behavior related to canine fear and aggression.