Of all the words that are overused in dog training, I think “no” is the worst offender. So frequently, I go into a home or work with a student in class where the dog hears nothing but a steady litany of “no, no, no.” I honestly think some dogs even think their names are “no,” because that’s what they hear all the time!
Some clicker trainers will tell you that you should never tell your dog no, and to a certain point I agree with them. However, I don’t think it’s realistic for a pet dog to never be told no. I just think we need to be thoughtful in its use.
My two dogs do get told no on occasion. Here are my rules for its use.
Firstly, and most importantly, you cannot tell your dog no unless you’ve first told him yes.
It is unfair and unkind to yell at your dog if he doesn’t know what he’s supposed to be doing in a given situation. Manage your dog to prevent him from making poor choices until he’s been trained, and for goodness sakes, train him! Tell him what to do by setting him up to do so and rewarding him when he does. There are probably a million poor choices your dog could make in any given situation, but there are usually one or two things you would like him to do. Guide him to make the right choice. For example, let’s say your dog gets overexcited when visitors arrive. Instead of scolding him for misbehaving, put him away in his crate with a Kong toy when people come over, then teach him an alternate behavior to use in greetings, such as fetching a toy or sitting while people pet him.
Your dog should hear “yes” 100 times for every time he hears “no.”
If you’re working on teaching your dog proper manners, make sure you’re telling him when he does something right! How often do owners ignore their dog when he’s chewing on his own toys, then freak out when he starts gnawing on their shoe? If you like it when your dog chews on his own stuff, tell him so! He’s not a mind reader.
So, when is it appropriate to say no? I use negative feedback for my dogs in situations where they already know what they’re supposed to do (because I’ve trained them and given them lots of positive feedback for the correct behavior) and they choose not to do so. For example, Dobby understands the It’s Your Choice game very well and has been rewarded literally thousands of times for controlling himself in the presense of things he wants. If I’m working with him on heeling and he chooses to swing behind me to grab the toy without permission, I’ll gently take his collar (to prevent him from tugging on the toy, which he would find rewarding) and tell him in a firm but calm voice to drop it. Once he does, I return to work. The correction is over and done. The information he got was necessary but was not painful or scary.
Corrections should never hurt or scare your dog. If you ever feel the need to yell or get physical with your dog, you are no longer training but are instead reacting. Put your dog away and figure out where you went wrong. And make no mistake: you went wrong somewhere. It’s not your dog’s fault that you were a poor trainer or leader, and it’s not fair to him to blame him for your mistakes.
What about aggression? What about situations where you just can’t tolerate your dog doing something, such as a dog who growls or bites? In those cases especially, corrections are the wrong choice.
99% of aggression is based in fear or uncertainty, and correcting a dog who’s in a fearful or aggressive state will only serve to make that behavior worse in the long term even if it seems to work in the moment. As far as the 1% of dogs who aggress because they’re just jerks who want to control everything: do you really want to get into a battle of wills with an animal who has the equivalent of carpet knives in his mouth? It’s not worth it to fight that battle. Even if you win the battle, you’ll lose the war if the only tool in your toolbox is negative feedback.
Fear, aggression, and other serious issues will not resolve on their own, and they certainly won’t resolve with corrections. Call a professional to help you. If you don’t live in our service area and need help, I’m happy to give you a recommendation for a qualified professional in your area.
The bottom line with corrections is that they’re just not necessary the majority of the time when people feel they need them. Your job as your dog’s owner and trainer is to guide him by teaching him what to do and managing him to prevent him from getting in trouble. There are absolutely times when it’s appropriate to tell your dog to knock it off, but if you’re doing things right those times should be few and far between. Set your dog up for success. Teach him boundaries. A well-trained dog finds joy in doing what he’s learned is right.
Which does your dog hear more often, yes or no? Do you need to change the way you manage certain situations to help him be right more often? Please share your stories in the comments below!