One of the more common questions I get asked is about whether telling your dog “No” works to train them.
Do Dogs Speak English?
It’s worth noting that when we speak words to our dogs, they do not inherently know what each word or phrase means. Over time they start to associate words with events if they are relevant to them.
“Do you want to go on a walk?” will usually elicit a dog’s super-excited jumping around and running back and forth between doors to outside the house and the person getting the leash.
“Treat!” will lead to a dog licking lips in anticipation of a tasty morsel, and perhaps looking toward the location food normally arrives from – a treat pouch, a countertop, or refrigerator.
Dogs will also zero in on words that are important to them because they predict something unpleasant is about to occur.
For example, for dogs who don’t like to take baths they surely do not want to hear “bath time.”
This learning process is classical conditioning, where dogs learn tip-offs to what will happen in the near-future.
This is also how dogs learn to spell. When “P-a-r-k” predicts a trip to a dog park, dogs learn to quickly associate the combination of each letter’s sound with the fun activity.
Understanding of Emotion/Intonation
Dogs can pick up on our body language, the emotions we express while speaking to them, and the way we say words (the tone we use).
Dogs tend to enjoy happy-talk, high-pitched voices, and praise. In contrast, words said angrily or harshly in deep, threatening voices are naturally disliked.
The Meaning of “No”
Therefore, “No” starts out as a meaningless word to dogs. If the word is used harshly, it will either be intrinsically off-putting to dogs, or they can learn it predicts something unpleasant.
When used in this type of way, “no” is used as a punisher and could have negative side effects (and therefore I wouldn’t recommend using it to train dogs).
What To Do Instead
Rather than focusing on what our dogs get wrong, and responding with a loud “NO!” – we can…
- Capture dogs doing desirable behaviors in the moment, and/or
- Preemptively teach dogs behaviors we want them to do, and
reward those behaviors.
It’s much more fun to teach by saying “Yes!” and providing rewards for good behavior, then it is to focus on each wrong response, and when we train this way our dogs will start to perform desirable behaviors more often.