On (not) saying "no" part 1

If there was one word I could remove from dog owners' vocabulary it would be “No”. Or rather “NO!!!!”. And all other sounds sharply and loudly spoken at the dogs, like “Eh-eh” (my personal worst). I'm aware that this statement may rattle a few cages and, frankly, it already happened to me, so I don't quite care. Years ago I suggested during one of my classes that we don't use “No” for the entire hour. A couple of students never came back. Really. We are so attached to this little word. We throw it around left, right and centre and firmly believe that it works on our dogs. Magic. It is not. In fact I see so many dogs that, despite being told “no” and “eh-eh” pretty much all the time, are still jumping, stealing food, pulling on leash or barking. On the contrary if you spent some time around me and my dogs you would be surprised how rarely I say it. There will be days my dogs will not hear it at all. And they are not running wildly around, not stealing food, not jumping, not barking, they are completely normal and pretty well trained. If I ever say “no” my dogs actually listen. Because it's not overused in my house, it actually means something and it's not a white noise. And, most importantly, it's always followed by an instruction to do something. And if they do it, they are rewarded. So they want to do it again.

The liberal use of “No” in dog training comes from the old school methods that were employed, and sadly still are, years ago. It's a form of punishment, or correction, that replaced physical corrections like yanking on a choke chain, spanking with a newspaper and so on. Quite many trainers that crossed over from punishment based methods now use their voice to correct the dog. They employ positive reinforcement too, when the dog is doing well, but will say “no” and “eh-eh” when the dog makes a mistake or misbehaves. It is intended to stop the bad behaviour so the dog can then start doing something desirable. And be rewarded. If done thoughtfully “no” may work as an interruption rather than punishment, but it is commonly said with a very stern voice to show the dog that we absolutely do not accept his behaviour. This is the problem I have with “no” and “eh-eh”. You may have heard that the tone of your voice is very important and you must use it wisely, so sweet talking as a reward and harsh tone as a correction. I would say if your dog understands the concept of “no”, you can even whisper it and he should respond. The same with any other cue. Loud voice is scary for most dogs, so they may respond with fear. It may become quite a strong punishment. And punishment is like carpet bombing, it not only targets one behaviour, but pretty much all behaviour. So the dog stops doing anything. Which maybe be desirable from the owner's point of view at the time but not in the long term. “No” does not tell your dog what you want him to do. It only temporarily suppresses the behaviour. Once the effect of that “no” wears off, the dog will have to decide what to do and it may not be what you like either. So you say “no” again, still without any additional information. And, of course, there are dogs that completely ignore your “no's” until you yell at them. Ask yourself how many times you have to repeat it. Is it really working?

The older methods of dog training used rewards and corrections alongside each other because it was commonly assumed that punishment is required to train the dog well. That dogs have to know what they are doing right and what they are doing wrong. In the modern animal training we believe there are other ways to let the dog know he's not correct. We apply different consequences that are more relevant to what we are doing with the dog at that moment. Sometimes I raise my voice but it's usually when my dog is away from me and wouldn't hear me talking normally. I may shout “no” if there is some danger involved and I need my dog to respond immediately. But it is rare, and that's why it works.

A world renowned animal trainer Ken Ramirez of Shedd Aquarium in Chicago does not allow his students to use the word “no”, or any other punishment for that matter, for the entire first year of their training programme. He wants them to really get to know the reinforcement procedures and become creative at using them before they even think about “no”. OK, that's maybe a bit over the top but the truth is we routinely overuse the little word and it becomes a crutch, it kinda fixes everything for us so we never really learn how to teach our dogs.

In part 2 I will propose an alternative approach, so we can finally ditch the “no”.