Being a dog owner can be really frustrating at times. The dog does something you don’t like, and it is absolutely infuriating when you can’t seem to get them to stop doing it. Without even intending it, you find yourself yelling “No!” at the top of your lungs, desperate for some reaction, some inkling of understanding to pass over your dog’s face. Dang it, you want them to STOP!
I hear it all the time. “Can you just teach my dog, ‘no’?”
My answer, ironically enough, is no.
I cannot teach your dog to understand the concept of “no.” Unlike with humans, words are, for the most part, only cues to a dog. If that were the case for us, there would be no poetry, no songs, no books. For us words have real meaning and can be interpreted many, many ways. A dog’s understanding of words relies simply on what follows them. The only way I can make “no” have a real meaning to a dog is if you give me a behavior you want “no” to cue in the same way we teach “sit” to mean “put butt on the floor”.
Dogs look for patterns everywhere. They are pretty good at finding them too. When people say that their dog has learned to understand whole sentences, it is usually because those same sentences are used often, in the same context, and with the same results. “Do you want to go potty?” leads to being taken outside. “Would you like to go for a ride?” leads to going to the car. It is only because of those associations that those phrases have become important cues to the dog. Again, they are CUES. They don’t hold any true meaning other than what behaviors they have come to predict.
Therefore, when we yell “no” at our dog over and over in varying situations, there is no clear connection between the word and what follows. Generally, the only consistency is that the dog hears that word, and sees that we are upset. But they may not be able to quickly ascertain the reason or know what to do to remedy that situation. In fact, they may not know that they CAN remedy the situation. It is awfully presumptuous, I think, for us to assume that our dogs know they are controlling our poor mood. They hear “no” and see us get upset. That very well may be where the association stops. Unless the same poor behavior is chained with our protest and anger over and over (dog chews shoe, we say “no”, we get angry. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat), it is likely they don’t even see their behavior as part of the equation. By the time they would have understood this connection, we would have been letting them continue to repeat the same mistakes over and over to the point that we have now risked them developing a bad behavior into a habit that will be hard to break.
An additional issue with using “no” all the time is that we tend to use it the way we would with a person. Remember that people understand meaning in a way that dogs do not. If I tell a person “no,” they can comprehend, without much additional information, what it is that I want them to stop and they will be able to come up with an alternate behavior or plan. Remember dogs only see patterns. If you’ve told your dog “no” and they did stop and do something else, can you honestly say that you gave them positive feedback for the behavior change? Or did you simply ignore it? Really think about it. Without that valuable piece of information following the “no”, the dog will hardly be able to form an appropriate pattern of understanding where their behavior influences our behavior or mood change.
If you could honestly say you did give your dog feedback after the “no,” that could be problematic as well. Consider this example:
Dog jumps on the couch.
Human tells the dog “no.”
Dog sees that human is upset.
Dog takes a guess at what would make the human happy and gets off the couch.
Human praises or rewards dog for getting off the couch.
If you consistently followed this pattern, and your dog consistently jumped off the couch, what problem develops here? Do you see it?
What followed the “no”?
Now your dog not only knows that “no” means something. But he’s likely learned that “no” is a cue to get off the couch to get a cookie. And how does the dog get you to say “no”? Well, they get on the couch of course!!!
Ooops! In attempting to teach your dog to understand “no,” what you have actually done is taught your dog to do the exact thing you wanted them not to do.
So, you see, using “no” is not terribly helpful in getting what you want. Instead, think of “no” as an interrupter, simply a sound (no different from banging your hand on a table) to temporarily get your dog’s attention so that you can redirect them to the appropriate activity. Instead of trying to teach your dog to understand “no,” do your best to set up the environment so that you don’t need to use “no” in the first place. By practicing great management and being proactive, you can have a more harmonious living situation with your dog and avoid having to yell at your dog at all.
For more information about management, see my other blog posts on the topic:
Nicole L Yuhas CPDT-KA
This blog is intended to be informative as well as entertaining. It contains my opinion which may not reflect the opinions of any organization I may be affiliated with. My opinions should not be interpreted as those of my coworkers, family, friends, casual acquaintances, and certainly not the opinion of my cat, although my dog probably agrees with everything I say, if for no other reason, than because I provide the treats and meals (cats are less inclined to agree with anyone but themselves). Information provided here is accurate and true to the best of my knowledge but, as information and opinions change, neither the facts nor the opinions expressed here may be true or accurate at any future date. As I don’t currently own a time machine, I cannot be responsible for things that prove to be untrue, or opinions I change my mind about, should those changes become apparent in the future. It should also be noted that, as I am human, there may be omissions, errors or mistakes in the information provided here. Frankly, even if I were a computer, it is likely there would be errors, as computers, in my experience, can be a royal pain in the butt. This blog may contain affiliate links which you are under no obligation to click. If you click them, they will hopefully take you the place I intended. But they may not. As I’ve said, computers can be a pain. If you find yourself somewhere you don’t think I intended, click your ruby slippers three times together and say, “there is no place like home.” If you do that, and click the “back” button, you should be safely returned. Computers can, at times, have a mind of their own. Any training suggestions or opinions expressed here should be taken as information only and should not be seen as advice particular to you or your dog’s unique situation. Please consult with a training professional before taking any action.