Helping your dog understand “No”

Is “No” a command your dog understands? What about “Stop that”, “shhh” or making some irritating buzzer noise?These sounds we use to express our displeasure with what a dog is doing may serve to stop the dog for a moment, usually due to the tone in which they are delivered, but they are not telling the dog what we want instead. Usually the dog will pause then go right back to the behavior we don’t want. He is then labeled stubborn, impossible or disobedient.

If you were walking along with a friend telling a story, and suddenly he yanked your sleeve and screeched “Eh-eh!” at you, you would probably freeze then ask him what in the world was that for? Since you both speak the same language, the friend would say you were talking too loudly. You adjust your volume, but are probably a little annoyed.  Dogs don’t have the luxury of speaking our language, so when we just yell “Quit it!” at them, they freeze, try to figure out what made that bad sound just happen, then go about their business.

Let’s try something different. Walking along with that same friend, he gently puts a hand on your elbow and says “Hey, can you speak a little softer, please?”  No harm done and no hurt feelings. In the same way, it is more effective for the dog to be told what to do instead of the dog trying to guess what not to do. Saying “No” or making a sound of disapproval will almost always happen, it’s practically a reflex, but we should try to limit this negativity, and if we can’t help it, make sure to follow it with an actual cue for a different behavior that will be rewarded. Behaviors that are rewarded will increase in frequency, and behaviors that are discouraged or ignored will go away.  Here are some examples:

I am trying to type this article. My dog keeps nudging my elbow for attention, causing me to make mistakes. I tell her to stop it, which she does for a second, then she comes back and tries again. This time I tell her “Go lie down,” which she knows means to go to her rug and stay there. When she lies down, I give her a dental chew to gnaw. Then she takes a nap. I finish my work.

My friend has me over. Her dog knows me, so the dog is whining and jumping up on my lap. My friend is saying “Stop it, stop it” without result. I stand up and ignore the dog. I know that the dog knows “sit” so I ask her for a sit. She does, and I pet her and give her a treat. This repeats 4-5 times, then the dog decides to sit and wait for reward instead of using those other behaviors to get my attention.

Alternate behaviors need to be trained and reinforced, but then they are much more powerful than the word no.