It amazes me how easily and quickly the word “no” comes out of our mouths. We commonly scold children, pets and each other with that ubiquitous word. Even though it’s so popular, it’s my least favorite word but not just because of its negativity. For pets, this word is meaningless. Dogs have no idea what “no” means. Simply by your tone of voice, they can tell that you’re not happy. That’s it. You’re not teaching your pet anything when you say “no.” When we do dog training, we teach the dog to associate an action with a word, such as “sit” means to put the butt on the ground and “come” means to walk towards you. How can you teach an association with “no”? You can’t because there is no action you can pair with it.

Saying “no” to your dog can have two different effects. First, it can frighten your dog if you’re yelling at him. And that’s no way to treat your dog or have a trusting relationship. Second, for many behaviors such as barking or begging, when you say “no,” you are delivering attention to your dog and reinforcing the behaviors you are trying to discourage. There are alternatives to saying “no.” If you want your dog not to steal food or grab something, we discussed using “leave it” in my post on January 14. If your dog is begging, see the post on January 24. And if your dog jumps, the post on January 5 addressed this issue.

I’ve witnessed many times when people inappropriately yell “no” to the dog when another more constructive course of action is desirable. A prime example is when a dog is barking or growling at something: another dog, a cat, a squirrel, a child, etc.  The dog already has a negative reaction to whatever it is he’s responding to. If you yell “no!” you are reinforcing in the dog’s mind that there really is something negative. You’ll make the problem even worse. I recently witnessed a shelter worker testing a dog to find out if he was aggressive to other dogs. When the dog barked at the other dog, the worker yanked on the dog’s leash and screamed, “No!!!”  That dog will now be more likely to repeat the behavior.

I tried several years ago to convey this concept to a woman in Nebraska who rescues puppy mill dogs. She said she screams “No!” when the dogs growl at one another to make them stop. I kindly recommended a different course of action, something that would not cause more negativity. Unfortunately, she disagreed. How sad that puppy mill survivors are getting yelled at. It will make their recovery time even longer or worse – they may never trust a human or may always growl at other dogs.

Instead of yelling “no” to stop a dog’s inappropriate behavior, try counter-conditioning. That will be our topic next time.