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).


Random thoughts on human division and canine cognition

The last few weeks have been interesting. I travelled through Florida and attended a conference at the exact time the United States went through an acrimonious election campaign. The conference was hosted by the Pet Professional Guild, an organisation dedicated to force-free and science-based training and handling of companion animals.
While the country around me was going further and further down a path of divisiveness and hatred I couldn’t help but draw some parallels to the divisions in the dog training world. My focus this time though was not on the chasms between the major training philosophies but on the disagreements within the force-free and science-based community. And since we so readily find fault with each other, maybe it’s not surprising how quickly we jump to conclusions when judging our dogs. Science can help us out.

“[The environment we grow up in] does not normally teach us how to live harmoniously with members of another species.”

Humans are emotional creatures and so are dogs. We know that emotions are triggered in the brain before rational thinking kicks in, so channelling our emotions into healthy, productive and appropriate pathways requires learning and practise. The environment we grow up in teaches us certain rules and customs that enable us to live in relative harmony with other humans. It does not normally teach us how to live harmoniously with members of another species. Dogs and other animals have their own ‘codes’ for intra-specific behaviour. What is appropriate behaviour for humans and appropriate behaviour for dogs rarely overlaps.

“There is a real risk that we … increase the already unrealistic expectations many dog handlers and guardians have in regards to their dogs.”

Research into the emotional and cognitive lives of dogs has recently been running on fast forward. There is an air of excitement that our dogs may be capable of more than we have ever thought possible. The quick turnout of studies however – often with small sample sizes and not always published in reputable journals – is not without danger. There is a real risk that we adapt new, and quite possibly misleading, ideas too quickly and increase the already unrealistic expectations many dog handlers and guardians have in regards to their dogs.

Whatever dogs are capable of, either emotionally or cognitively, we can never compare their internal experiences with those of humans. Every time we suggest that dogs may feel guilt, jealousy, revenge, spite, empathy, love and more, we encourage their humans to make assumptions about what goes on in their dog’s head. Unfortunately, their judgement will depend on their own interpretations of and experiences with those emotional and cognitive events. We are trapped in our human brains. And unless we constantly remind ourselves of that fact, chances are we aren’t being fair to our dogs.

“The fact that animals learn via operant and classical conditioning does not mean they are emotionally and cognitively deprived automatons.”

Even science-based dog professionals are not always safe from the pitfalls when studying a different species. Currently there seems to be a sentiment of “throw out the old and bring in the new” among a growing number of trainers. Disparaging remarks about animal learning theory, an eagerness to adopt new training methods and the push to assign higher cognitive function to dogs than is currently the case have been popping up on social media and at the conference I attended. It worries me not because I believe dogs are less capable than we give them credit for, but because I fear that we risk sacrificing good science for the thrill of discovery.

Animal learning theory is the pillar of dog training and it has neither been invalidated nor does it prevent us from making new exciting discoveries about dogs. The fact that animals learn via operant and classical conditioning does not mean they are emotionally and cognitively deprived automatons. It should be remembered that humans also learn to a large extent and very successfully via operant and classical conditioning. There is no need to criticize these processes as dated or limiting. Science does not toss out a well-established model because it’s been around for too long. In fact, the usual process is to build on and possibly modify existing knowledge, rather than discard a proven scientific theory or law.

Breaking new ground is an essential part of science, but there is good reason that science is conservative. It is necessary to guarantee its objectivity and adherence to evidence-based facts in pursuit of the truth. Before a new idea is allowed credibility it has to withstand merciless and unbiased experimentation and scrutiny. Otherwise it will remain just an idea, and so it should.

“What arrogance do we possess that makes us punish the behaviour of another species, especially one that has never signed an agreement to share a home with us?”

I also do not believe that the respect we have for dogs and other animals should depend on how their cognitive and emotional intelligence compares to ours. With this, however, I am expressing my personal opinion and ethics and cannot rely on scientific backing.
For example, the granting of personhood to great apes because of their relatedness and similarities to the human species may help provide greater protection for these animals – which is a good thing of course. But to link animal welfare and animal rights to how close or distant a species’ emotional and cognitive capabilities are to those of humans is ethically questionable in my opinion. To differ from the human standard does not mean to be a lesser creature on this earth. No animal – no matter how ‘simple-minded’ according to human measure should be subjected to ill-treatment. Giving other animals the freedom to pursue their own happiness is what makes us particularly human.

In order to teach our dogs humanely and create a good life for them and us, I think we first need to stop trying to explain their behaviour from a human perspective. The mere fact that we talk about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ behaviour in dogs shows our human biases. The definition of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ is our call and therefore rarely does justice to the dog. Why do we think we have the right to force the member of another species to adhere to our rules and morals and think of them as ‘bad’ if they don’t fit in? What arrogance do we possess that makes us punish the behaviour of another species, especially one that has never signed an agreement to share a home with us?

The only way forward is unbiased data. Let’s get some data.

Be it for scientific or ethical reasons, a shift away from a human-centric to a dog-centric perspective is necessary if we want to learn more about those fascinating animals we live with. Recognising and trying to avoid anthropocentrism is highly desirable in dog trainers, handlers and guardians but even more so in scientists who study dogs and anyone who relates the findings to the public. And I believe it is an essential step to truly appreciate our dogs, because it means we are ready to let them be dogs and set our own egos aside. We can keep arguing about how smart dogs really are, if they possess morality, empathy or theory of mind, but I don’t think it will get us far. The only way forward is unbiased data. Let’s get some data.



The Pet Professional Guild, The Association for Force-Free Pet Professionals
Gorilla’s death calls for human responsibility, not animal personhood, The Conversation June 4, 2016
Why Fake Data When You Can Fake a Scientist?, Adam Marcus and Ivan Oransky, Nov 24, 2016