What “No” Really Means to Your Dog

No has to be one of the most uttered exclamations by anyone living with dogs and, dare I say, kids. Of course, we have to control those little critters who seem to have nothing better to do than throw us challenge after challenge and make our lives difficult. They just don’t listen, do they? And, if our authoritative no doesn’t suffice, let’s just increase the volume and— voilà!—now we have their attention. For a few seconds at least. Then we’ll start over like a broken record.

Or maybe we belt out a formidable NO!! with such ferocity that everyone ducks for cover and gives us peace for the rest of the day. Ah, finally, we get the respect we so crave.

Except it’s all but a fleeting dream.

The Loud No

Yelling at someone to make them change their behaviour is not exactly what I would call a teaching method. It has—together with other forms of intended positive punishment—fallen out of favour with educators for good reason. Aggressive behaviour doesn’t just affect the well-being of our dogs, but ours as well. Like a quick meal at the nearest junk food outlet, it gives us instant relief but, if repeated, it gradually makes us worse.

Despite the short-lived benefits of raising one’s voice, the immediate result—in case your dog stops whatever they were doing—can be reinforcing. It’s easy to convince yourself that your strategy has worked. Let’s say you catch your dog chewing on the carpet. You yell NO! and the dog slinks away with tail low and quietly lies down on their bed. Success!

So, how do you feel ten minutes later or the next day when your dog is chewing on the carpet again? It may be time to revise your strategy.

Here is the problem: If your dog is highly motivated to engage in an activity such as chewing, be they a puppy, a recreational chewer or a dog seeking stress relief, they keep doing it. To counter this strong motivation, your threatening behaviour—in the form of yelling—has to be severe enough to have even the slightest chance of success. But even then, the dog’s behaviour is usually only suppressed for a finite time or as long as you are around.

Attempting to punish your dog’s behaviour with aggressive methods could even have the opposite effect, for example if the dog chews out of anxiety. Your aggressive behaviour gives the dog an even greater reason to be anxious, so they chew the carpet even harder to relieve their stress.

Now imagine your dog is anxious around the kids next door and growls at them. I’m sure you would be grateful that your dog makes their feelings known (so you can change them for the better) rather than turning those feelings into direct action. If you silence your dog’s voice by threatening them, what you fear might happen is far more likely to happen.


The Stern or Firm No

So how about we dial down the decibels and employ what is often referred to as the stern no or the firm no? Surely, this establishes our leadership and authority without the nasty side effects.

You might be in luck, if your target is human, of good hearing, sufficiently intellectually mature and dependent on your goodwill. Without the latter, well, at least you have a chance to start an argument. Try this with a toddler, a dog or a lizard and you can expect tantrums, disappearance acts or just plain indifference. Just like the loud no, the stern no is intended to stop the dog from doing something by exerting some sort of authority, so the tone tends to be threatening, regardless of the decibel level.

I suppose once upon a time commanding voices were thought to teach our children such grand values as respect, authority, discipline, obedience and loyalty. It seems odd that—while we have long realised that young children aren’t capable of grasping these concepts—we believe members of another species do a better job. Alas, a threatening voice does not teach your dog morality. They just learn to avoid you.


The Conditioned, or Learned, No

Because the word no, said in a resolute voice, has such a clear meaning to us humans, it is not really surprising that we use it with other animals as well. But, of course, a dog has no idea what the word no means unless—over time—they recognise a pattern and learn what happens after the no.

Let’s say your dog stalks your cat, prompting you to say no. Then, because your dog ignores you and starts chasing or pestering the cat, you get hold of the dog and put them in the laundry for a two-minute time-out. If you consistently repeat this pattern, your dog will learn that your no predicts time alone in the laundry, unless they leave the cat alone.

Time-outs can be highly effective, as long as you manage to deliver them consistently in a matter-of-fact way, without scaring the dog with either your voice or your actions. Once your dog has learned the pattern, they have a choice to avoid the negative punishment, i.e. the time-out. If you can pull this off, your no will take on the meaning of a warning. Congratulations. This is no simple procedure.

Reward-based dog trainers avoid the word no precisely because it has a default meaning to humans. It is almost impossible to deliver the word in a neutral tone, especially when your dog is about to do something you don’t approve of. To avoid slipping into the loud or stern category, it’s best to choose a more pleasant word or phrase as a warning (“gentle”, “easy”, “nope”, or how about the Aussie classic: “oi”), give a learned cue for cease & desist (“leave it”) or ask the dog for an alternative behaviour (come, sit, touch, fetch).


The Overshadowed No

In reality, the word no is rarely delivered in a neutral tone nor on its own. Its delivery is forceful and it is often accompanied—rather than followed—by some form of action, such as rushing towards, staring at or leaning over the dog, throwing things at the dog or worse. Your actions overshadow your words just like your tone of voice does. So, the word itself is entirely irrelevant. You could use any verbal uttering, because your dog responds exclusively to your body language and noisiness.


The Most Appropriate No in Dog Training

The most appropriate use of the word no in dog training is the one where you simultaneously slap your forehead because you left your puppy alone with what used to be your precious new throw rug (management fail); or when you finally realise your dog never sits longer than a split-second because you consistently rewarded them after they stood up (sloppy training mechanics); or when your dog does an instant U-turn away from a sweet-smelling possum carcass after hearing your irresistible voice and you realise you left those super tasty treats at home (badly missed opportunity).


Multi-animal households: The more the merrier or crowded house?

Dogs are social creatures, just like humans. And so are cats, by the way. But, of course, that doesn’t mean that everyone gets along with everyone else, same species or not. Scenarios where individuals are more or less forced to live together and don’t always have a say in who they share with are common. Starting with the family you grow up in (and hopefully it worked out for you!), you may have moved on to share with friends or fellow students, and maybe even later in life, because you couldn’t afford a place on your own. Age or disability may also force you to live in a home where sharing with others is unavoidable.

There are situations where living together simply doesn’t work out. There could be a clash of personalities or incompatible lifestyles. There could be constant fighting or even an abusive relationship. If you are not able to change your situation and feel trapped in a social network, you are likely to suffer mentally, emotionally and, quite possibly, physically. I assume this may be a major reason that people disappear. And, it is mind-boggling just how many people go missing without a trace every year.

Now spare a thought for all those animals that we add to our homes. Not only do they not have a choice if they want to live with us in the first place, they also have no say every time a new family member is added. How do they cope? Well, not always very well. Some animals do wander off in search for a better life – mostly cats who have better survival chances than dogs – but most animals are unable to vote with their feet. They are either physically trapped or their dependency on us is so great that escape is not an option. And, just like humans, they get stressed, depressed and anxious if they have little control over their lives.

Trying to tick all the important boxes before adding someone to your family is ideal, but in reality neither our decision-making nor life itself are always ideal. Not even close. So, if you already are in a challenging situation, here are some things you can do to create a more harmonious household.

Everyone needs to feel safe

If you live in a mixed species household, consider the natural relationship between the animals (predator – prey?) and have safety measures in place. The risk of your dog preying on your cat or guinea pig may be low, if they have grown up together, but it is never zero. Leaving them alone together without supervision can end in disaster. So is leaving large dogs with tiny dogs or animals that don’t know each other well or have a history of serious fighting.

Of course, who is scared of who isn’t always clear-cut. If your dog tip-toes around the house because they are constantly vigilant of being ambushed by your cats, it may make for ‘funny’ YouTube videos but it sure is a hellish life for your dog.

If any of your animals is afraid of others in your household – and that includes you, your children and anyone who comes to your house – things need to change. For example, change how you manage your animals, think about how your own actions affect your animals’ behaviour and avoid anything that could scare your animals. Don’t be hesitant to engage a qualified positive reinforcement animal trainer or veterinary behaviourist to set you on the right track.

Everyone needs their own space

Personal space is not just a human need. Opportunities to retreat and not be bothered by other members of the family – human or other – are essential for everyone. For cats this means high places where dogs and kids can’t reach. For dogs this may be a crate, a playpen or a cosy bed under a desk that is off limits to everyone else. This is especially important, if the dog or cat is shy or anxious. Closely supervise any human member of the household who is not old enough or able to understand that animals are not toys.

Having separate feeding, resting and toileting stations for your animals is important. For example, don’t expect your three cats to share one litter tray, keep your puppy away from your senior who is desperately trying to have an afternoon nap and feed dogs separately who have a history of being a little too protective of their food. Stressful situations cause friction and, if repeated over and over, can escalate and make one or more of your animals decidedly unhappy and even sick.

Everyone needs to be listened to

Animals living with humans have one very significant problem: They can’t tell us how they feel or what they want. Understanding another species – which mostly means understanding what their body language and behaviour might tell us – is a science and needs to be learned from qualified animal behaviour experts. So, in order to understand your animal better, stick to sources that rely on actual animal behaviour research. Avoid following advice you hear on TV, social media or from anyone who thinks they have all the answers but no scientific data to back it up.

If you are able to recognise your animals’ emotions and moods, you can take immediate action if things are not well. Rather than being reactive to ‘unacceptable’ behaviour and potentially making a situation worse, your knowledge and understanding will turn you into a skilled planner, coordinator, negotiator, protector and friend.


To sum it up, if a multi-animal household is to have any chance of success, each individual must feel safe and have the right to express themselves in a species-typical way. Sometimes this means you have to get creative with how you provide suitable outlets for your animals’ favourite activities. You are, after all, a zoo keeper.