One thing I try to teach all of my clients is that saying “no” is a bad idea. As people, most of whom understand what “no” means, using that word comes naturally. We utilize it beyond a simple rejection or refusal to consult, we also use “no” to mean “stop” or “don’t do that”.
“No”, put simply, is a word with multiple meanings and given that, how can we expect our dogs to understand what it means? (If you don’t have time to read the details, scroll below for the too-long-didn’t-read section)
One thing that will set back training with your dog is a lack of clear communication. When we teach a dog a new skill, we have to try and be as clear as possible. Generally, that means we need to start by showing our dog what we want (we do that with luring in most cases), then we reinforce that behaviour and fade out the lure, and once our dog understands what we want them to do, we add the verbal cue in so that we can clearly communicate by words alone with our dog.
Many (probably most) dog guardians will actually start using verbal cues right away while they are luring and a lot of them will have success, that’s because our dogs are extremely good at putting things together even if we don’t communicate it perfectly. But often, that lack of clarity does matter and my clients will joyfully say “Hey! I finally got the down on verbal only, look!” and proceed to have the dog sit there and look at them confused while they stand perfectly still and don’t respond to “Down”. It’s not that the dog is stubborn, it’s that they are confused. In most cases, their guardian has introduced the verbal cue while still using body language cues without realizing (hand signals, bending over, etc).
So if some dogs learn well even if we aren’t great communicators, can’t we use “No” with those dogs?
The answer is: No. “Down”, “Sit”, “Stay” etc all have clear meanings to our dogs. We expand their meanings as we take those skills from the living room to the yard, to the park, etc. But they all mean a specific skill. Instead, when we use “No” our dog doesn’t know what to do. We might be saying “No” to them jumping up on us. We might be saying “No” to them pulling, or even jumping up on the counters, etc. Those are all different behaviours for our dogs. We just are not consistent enough with what “no” means.
Most of you are probably using “No” to get your dog to stop doing specific behaviours and potentially as a no-reward-marker (a word you use to tell your dog during training that they did not do the desired skill). So how can you teach your dog how to behave if you can’t tell them what is bad?
Well, put simply, you don’t need to tell them they did something wrong. Over 5 years ago I decided to experiment with my dogs and stop using my no-reward-marker (oops). I stopped cold turkey and what did I find? No significant negative change in behaviour from my dogs, in fact, eliminating that word from my vocabulary resulted in my dogs showing less frustration in training and also increased my skills in setting them up for success. Things actually improved!
So if your dog is doing something wrong, what can you do? Use a positive interrupter. A positive interrupter is something that you say to interrupt your dog’s behaviour. What makes it positive? Your dog gets a reward (food or praise) for listening. You might be asking “Won’t I be rewarding them for doing the bad thing?”. The answer is: No. The positive interrupter can be used when you are interrupting a “bad” behaviour but you’re going to reward your dog coming to you, not the “bad” behaviour. Pro tip: If this is a repeat unwanted behaviour, it’s time to look at how you could set up the environment to eliminate this behaviour from happening in the first place or teach an incompatible behaviour.
For me, the positive interrupter is typically kissing sounds because it works with most dogs. I follow that sound with an excited “yes!” the moment they come towards me.
If you stop saying no and other no-reward-markers, you won’t stop progressing on your training, instead, you’ll learn how to become a better communicator with your dog.
- No is a word used for too many meanings in human language and therefore is confusing to your dog.
- No-reward-markers (sometimes a no, or oops, etc) are not required to advance training, in fact eliminating them may lead to less frustration and more errorlesslearning.
- Instead of using “no”, try to use a positive interrupter.
- A positive interrupter is something you say to get your dog to stop a behaviour but it comes with a positive consequence.
- It won’t reward bad behaviour, instead you’ll be rewarding your dog coming back to you.
- My sequence is 1. Dog is doing unwanted behaviour. 2. I say the positive interrupter. 3. Dog comes towards me. I say “yes!”. 4. Once dog reaches me, I reward with food (or praise if no food is nearby).
- If unwanted behaviours keep repeating themselves, look at how you can modify the environment to keep it from occurring in the first place or teach your dog an incompatible behaviour.