Should You Use The Word "No" When Training Your Dog?

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The problem with using the word "No" when training your dog is that the word suggests that your dog understands, or can be taught to understand, right from wrong, and that he can then learn to make a good moral decision to stop doing the undesirable behaviour, because deep down he wants to be a good dog. But dogs don't work that way. (Good luck trying to explain this to your nan whose precious bow-tie wearing Shih-tzu has won rosettes for having the waggiest tail.)

When you teach a human child right from wrong hey also learn about empathy, morals, guilt and other complex emotions. They learn that they will be judged if they don't make the right choices in life. Dogs don't experience the world like this, because dogs are not human children. They will never be human children, no matter how many frilly dresses you make them wear. If you want to set your dog up for success in a human world, you need to start thinking like a dog.


How Do Dogs Learn?

Luckily dogs are very simple when it comes to the way in which they learn things. A dog, or any animal for that matter, learns to repeat the behaviours which provide them with a positive experience, and behaviours which result in a negative experience die out.

I don't know the amount of times I have tried to teach my cat to stay off the kitchen surfaces by screaming "Noooo" at him from the other side of the room. I was terrified of him getting burnt on the oven top if I had been cooking. One day he leapt up before anyone could yell at him, straight onto the hot oven plates from the floor, and he shot straight out of the room screaming. Never again did he leap up onto the oven. That was a very quick lesson in real life, and one which I'm sure will last a lifetime.

Have you ever found yourself barking "No" repeatedly at your dog with little to no response? Your dog has probably learnt that being shouted at isn't the worst experience in the world. You shout "No!" but the consequence isn't immediately clear to your dog, and it therefore doesn't stop him from chasing that squirrel and enjoying the extremely potent positive reward he gets when ignoring your "No's" and in return getting his primal kicks from the chase. Your dog has successfully taught himself to ignore you and follow his own natural instincts for the best results.

Don't forget that your dog's natural instincts are powerful for a reason. He wants to chase things, because everything about a predator is geared towards survival, which means hunting, chasing, killing, eating, and recovering before going again. These are natural ingrained behaviours. Then along comes a human and tells him "No! Don't chase the squirrel." If your dog could speak he would say, "Give me one good reason!" You might reply, "Because it's not nice" and your dog will look at you like you've lost the plot, because he doesn't understand your crazy human moral reasoning.


Dogs Don't Automatically Generalise

When you say "No" have you thought about what exactly it is that are you trying to tell your dog? Perhaps you want to tell them to stop doing something in particular, like chewing on the coffee table leg. But what happens when you start using that same word to communicate to your dog to stop doing other things, like jumping up at people on walks and stealing food from the dinner table? Your dog is going to get very confused. It doesn't understand that this one word refers to so many different behaviours. How is it meant to remember all of the things it's not supposed to do with just one word for reference?

Dogs get confused when they don't know what you want from them. Telling a dog what you don't want isn't the same thing. If you say "No" when your dog is chasing after a bike, he doesn't know what you're asking him to do, but if you ask him to "come" he knows that you want him to come to you, and that if he does so he will be rewarded, because you have probably taught him this already.

"Come" is a different verbal command to "No", but a more effective one because it has a specific meaning that refers to a specific uncomplicated action, therefore you are communicating more clearly with your dog when you use it, and you are more likely to get the desired behaviour from him. You have directed him to replace the act of chasing the bike with the act of returning to you.

Don't forget that when you call a dog to come back to you there should always be a highly positive experience waiting for him. When you think about the competition - chasing a bike is super exciting, kind of like chasing a squirrel, so you have to try and top that to make sure that your dog won't ever stop to consider his options!


Positive Reinforcement Versus Negative Reinforcement

You are much more likely to achieve the behaviour you want by reinforcing it with praise and rewards than you are to prevent unwanted behaviour through the use of negative reinforcement methods. These may include horrible things like dominating your dog because you want them to view you as the "Alpha" of the pack and know their place in the pecking order, or using fear as a means of control. 

The thing about using fear to control your dog is that you aren't teaching him desirable behaviours, you are merely teaching him to be afraid of you. I doubt that any genuine dog lover or decent dog owner wants their dog to be afraid of them. And I'm sorry to break it to you, but your dog knows you're not a dog, so they're unlikely to think of you as their pack leader, in the same way that you know (or should know) that they are not a human and that they are unlikely to feel guilty for nabbing a slice of toast off your child's plate. Being a pack leader requires an acute understanding of natural dog behaviour, dog body language, and doggie etiquette, and let's be realistic, you probably don't posses that kind of understanding.

Positive reinforcement training isn't just about shoving treats at your dog or bribing them to do things, it is much more about developing, maintaining, and protecting the relationship and bond you have built with your dog. Remember that once broken, it is very difficult to get trust back.

I'd like to suggest that we stop using the word "No" and start using the word "Yes"!

Use "Yes" as a positive marker word to communicate to your dog when they do the things you want them to repeat. Say "Yes" and follow immediately with praise, cuddles, ballies, tug-toys, and little pieces of chicken. You will be your dog's favourite person.

You are the most powerful tool in your dog training kit, but you are not a hammer, so don't be tempted to hammer your poor dog into the ground with the word "No".

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Thank you for your support!
Zara M.