Oh No! Why you shouldn’t tell your dog no…

By Jo Vale

For as long as I can remember, it has been accepted that telling your dog ‘no’ when they do something we don’t like is appropriate and a way to stop them doing this behaviour. Here we are going to question the motive behind why we do this and if it is the best way to communicate with our dogs. We constantly hear ‘my dog doesn’t know what no means.’ And would they? They don’t speak English (or Spanish for that matter). No is a word with different meanings in different contexts. For example, if someone asked you to explain what no means, can you give a simple answer? ‘No, I’ll do it later’ ‘No, don’t touch that.’ ‘No, I’m fine for a drink thank you.’ We can’t expect our dogs to understand all of these meanings when we ourselves can not give a simple explanation for what no means. 

Here are some reasons people think we need to tell our dogs no:

It replicates a mum telling off her puppies with a sharp bark

Dogs have a huge array of communication skills. Dogs also know that we are not dogs, let alone their own mothers (sounds so silly when you say it out loud!) Dogs have a huge array of communication skills they use before they bark at each other and a sharp bark would be one of their last resorts. Even if they did know what we meant, do we really want to teach our dogs a sharp snap is a way to get what we want?

My dog knows what no means

Say if you’ve taught your dog, no means to get off the counter.. how are they also supposed to know that no also means stop barking. No also means don’t run over to that other dog? Dogs are very clever, but they’re not that clever.

Saying no to our dogs may sometimes seem like it works, because they’ve stopped what they’re doing. The reason they’ve done this is probably because you’ve shocked or startled them. Yes it may achieve what you want in that moment, but how does this affect the relationship between you and your dog long term if you’re the person that scares them? Will they still trust you? Will they want to recall to you if you’ve scared them earlier that morning? If you’re playing with your dog and you shout no at them when they’re too rough, are they as likely to look forward to playing with you in the future? 

So let’s say we want a dog to stop jumping up, we say no to them. How does that dog know what we want them to stop doing? Do we want them to stop coming to greet us? Do we want them to not come in the room? Saying no gives no clear indication for what they should be doing.

Imagine walking into a shop, and someone says ‘no’ to you as soon as you walk in… what questions would you have? What’s the problem? Why can’t you come in? If you can’t come in now but can later? Whereas, imagine if you walked into a shop and someone said to you ‘this is the exit door, the entry door is over there.’ How would the two different approaches make you feel? One of them you’re shocked and confused, the other one you say oh right, I’ll go this way. It’s the same for our dogs.

When teaching we need to think what do we want our dogs to do, not what don’t we want our dogs to do. For example, we can say we don’t want our dogs to jump up at us, a better start to the process is to ask what would we like our dogs to do instead. For example, if you decide you want your dog to sit when they see you, we are giving them something to do, not something to not do.

Asking a dog for a behaviour to stop another one is called a mutually exclusive behaviour. Say if we don’t want our dogs to jump up, and we ask them for a sit. They sit and they get fuss from you. Brilliant, everyone gets what they want, no more questions asked. This can be applied to a variety of things, say if the doorbell goes and your dog is barking. If you ask them to follow you into the garden for treats this is more likely to stop the behaviour of barking at the door far more successfully than telling them no. 

A dog is playing with something you don’t want them to be in the house, if we say no to them, what are we actually asking them to do. Should they not be playing altogether, should they not be laying down? Whereas if we say, here, play with this instead, the dog then plays with a more appropriate toy, and everyone is happy.

Of course, nobody is perfect and I am the first to admit I say ‘no no no’ when I see my dog trotting off around the house with something I don’t want them to have. This is a natural human response and not something I should expect them to understand. However, we can make life simpler for our dogs to stop startling them with a firm no and instead giving them a different behaviour to do, which also stops the behaviour we are saying no to. It’s a win win for everybody!

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