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).


The importance of keeping a cool head in dog training

As a child I threw the occasional temper tantrum. Today I have a vague idea how frustrated my parents must have been when one of their offspring suddenly turned from a shy, freckled and stub-nosed little girl into a screaming, purple-faced, missile-launching monster. Yes, I had a habit of throwing things, whatever happened to be closest. One day my red-hot rage almost killed one of our birds. After violently kicking the air, my slipper detached itself from my foot and made a beeline for the birdcage, causing it to topple off the window sill and – fortunately – come to a stop on the back of a sofa.  Our poor little tiger finch was wildly flapping his wings in an attempt to stay airborne throughout the ordeal and kept complaining loudly for quite a while afterwards. As the disaster unfolded my rage evaporated into cold sweat. The realisation that my anger could have actually killed someone shocked me. It might have been “just a bird” to most people, but I have treasured – and tried to protect – the life of every critter I have came across since I can remember (aside from the occasional mosquito where, I have to admit, my anger management tends to fail me). In case this incident doesn’t convince you that I had an anger problem, I also once hurled a rock at my sister while she had her back turned.

The reason I’m disclosing this rather embarrassing personal history is that impulse control is a big deal in dog training. Although we usually have the dog in mind when we talk about impulse control, what I want to focus on here is our own mental and emotional stability. It matters, not so much in relation to if and how dogs may “pick up on” our internal emotional states, but rather what it is we do when we get emotional and how it can sabotage our training attempts.

Setting the bar where the dog can reach

Anger is an emotion that can cause significant damage. I have to assume that not everyone experiences the kind of rage that I described above, but I’m sure we all have experienced anger in some form. Some people may find it relatively easy to channel their emotions appropriately, for others it may take years to learn self-control while still others either see no need to do anything about it or are simply overwhelmed by their anger.

While expressing anger towards another human can sometimes be justified and even useful, being angry with a dog belongs firmly into the “makes-no-sense-whatsoever” category. Of course we can feel angry about something the dog did, such as chewing up the remote control, but to hold the dog responsible and therefore direct our anger towards them is irrational, anthropomorphic and simply unfair.

Even worse is losing one’s cool when training a dog. How well and how fast a dog learns is a function of their genetics, their experiences, their relationship with us and how good a trainer we are. If the dog doesn’t “get it”, there’s no point accusing them of stubbornness or stupidity. If the dog doesn’t learn, it is due to our failure of taking all parameters into account and training the dog in a way that enables them to learn.

From “boom!” to bust in an instant – don’t risk it

When we get angry with our dogs, it is often because we don’t feel in control of their behaviour. Because anger interferes with rational thinking we are likely to target the dog rather than considering why we lack control or if controlling every aspect of our dog’s life is even necessary. Out of anger we may yell at the dog – or worse – and then probably feel guilty afterwards. Unfortunately, even a short outburst and even if it is redirected at something other than the dog – let’s say we slam a door – can potentially instil fear in the dog and make future training more difficult. Depending on the dog’s sensitivity, it may take weeks or months to regain the dog’s trust if our tantrum was scary enough for them.

There is nothing worse than having a cowering dog with tail tucked slinking around you every time you want to do a little training exercise. It’s annoying. It’s sad. And it gets in the way of efficient and successful training.

Having a submissive, fearful dog can become a serious challenge as the results of fearfulness are often far-reaching and may affect areas the dog had been perfectly fine with before. We also know that fearfulness and anxiety have the potential to cause long term physical health issues which may become costly and make the dog feel even more miserable.

For dog’s sake – breathe, think, have a plan

So it really is important to pay attention to our anger and how we express it in front of our dogs. Because it can take so little to damage the relationship, it is best if we have our own impulses under control and walk away if we feel overwhelmed.

One part of the process is an awareness of all those dog-related myths that persist in our society which cause us to blame dogs for simply being dogs. And the other part is to steer our own thinking away from those automatic thought patterns. If we teach ourselves to immediately assess what we have missed every time the dog “messes up”, we can preempt irrational feelings and spontaneous reactions based on anger. Maybe we should have put the remote control out of reach. Maybe we didn’t teach the dog in small enough increments so they could succeed. Maybe we put them in a situation they just couldn’t handle.

Having a clear idea what we expect from our dogs, a plan how we get there and management options until the dog is ready (or for situations that cannot be addressed with training) will help us keep a cool head and not blow up when things get difficult. It may need a little practise to get there but it is absolutely necessary if we want good behaviour from our dogs and enjoy their happy and carefree attitude which is, after all, what makes our lives so much better.