saying-noPicture a grade school classroom, shortly before lunch.

“Can we go to lunch early?” asks a student.

“No!” replies the teacher.

“Please, just a minute early?” persists the student.

“I said no!” repeats the teacher.

“Pleeeease?” begs the student.

“What part of ‘no’ don’t you understand?” reprimands the teacher. 

“I don’t understand any part of no!” replies the student.

Of course, in this common storyline, the student is being precocious; she fully understands what the teacher means when he says “No.”

But let’s revisit this scenario, replacing student and teacher with dog and owner. Instead of asking to go to lunch early, the dog may be barking at the door to go for a walk. The owner repeatedly says, “No!” and the dog continues to bark. Frustration mounts on both sides. The owner might think, “What part of no does my dog not understand?”

If the dog could speak English, he might respond the same way as the student. “I don’t understand any part of no!”

When faced with the question of “Why should I do what you’re asking me to do,” dogs won’t take “No!” for an answer. This doesn’t mean your dog is stubborn or disobedient. It means your dog is normal.

In her book The Culture Clash, Jean Donaldson says the following regarding dogs and the perils of the “Lassie” myth: “As soon as you bestow intelligence and morality, you bestow the responsibility that goes along with them. In other words, if the dog knows it’s wrong to destroy furniture yet deliberately and maliciously does it, remembers the wrong he did and feels guilt, it feels like he merits a punishment, doesn’t it? That’s just what dogs have been getting – a lot of punishment. We set them up for all kinds of punishment by overestimating their ability to think.”

It’s all pineapples to dogs

When it comes to dogs and communication, we face a language barrier. Dogs learn by association and consequences. Event X leads to event Y. Behavior X leads to cookies, behavior Y leads to a time out. Dogs can learn the meanings of various words – called verbal discrimination – but this takes lots of time and practice; even the savviest dog guesses from time to time.

The word “no” is a powerful one in the English language – it’s pithy, direct, and leaves little room for interpretation. But when it comes to dogs, the word “no” can lead to a vicious cycle of repeated reprimands from the owner and a frustrated, confused dog.

But wait, you might be saying at this point. My dog DOES understand what “no” means, he’s simply choosing to ignore me. This is an understandable misconception – the dog initially reacts to the short, loud reprimand. Over time, the dog notices that nothing follows the word, except maybe more repetitions plus an increasingly frustrated owner. Unless the word is followed by an immediate, consistent consequence, it becomes part of the continual noise that streams from human mouths. It becomes irrelevant.

When owners tell me their dog knows the meaning of “no,” I often ask them to perform a little experiment. The next time the dog misbehaves, I instruct them to say “pineapple!” in a loud voice. Invariably, the dog stops and looks at the owner, startled by the exclamation. You could claim from this little experiment that the dog is a sage and knows to look at the owner upon hearing the word “pineapple,” but that would be ridiculous. The point is, the dog is simply responding to the loud noise coming from your mouth. If you kept saying “pineapple!” without any consequence attached to it, the word would become irrelevant.

Similarly, you could teach your dog to sit on the word “kumquat,” provided you continually lured him into a sit immediately after saying the word. The consequence of the word, not the English definition, is what matters to the dog.

Let’s return to the “no” quandary

When saying “no” to a dog, the desired goal is usually for the dog to stop doing whatever he’s doing: to stop chewing, pulling on the leash, digging up a plant, jumping on the clean sofa. The dog invariably keeps doing the undesired behavior, and the owner keeps saying the word “no.” Maybe after 5-10 repetitions the owner becomes exasperated and puts the dog in a time out. Because of the muddled execution and unclear behavior – consequence contingency, the dog won’t be able to connect the dots.

A better solution would be to teach the dog a command that results in fabulous consequences. For example, if a dog is inclined to scavenge for trash on the street, the owner could teach the dog a strong “leave it,” so the dog learns that those words predict a high-value treat from the owner. Instead of a litany of “no no no!” the owner simply says “leave it” once, and the dog gets it right.

Similarly, if a dog continually bolts off leash, better to build a strong coming when called command so that when the owner says “come!” the dog will come bolting back, salivating and anticipating a steady flow of high-value treats.

A word about punishment

Ditching the word “no” doesn’t mean your dog doesn’t receive humane and force-free punishment for unwanted behavior. In fact, you can still keep the word as a marker to help the dog understand why he’s being put in time out. In order for this word to properly function as a warning, you need to follow it up with a time out every single time. So, take a puppy who is mouthing you too hard. Immediately after you feel the sharp teeth, you  say “no” or “too bad” (or even “pineapple” if you’re so inclined), and put the puppy in time out for a minute. With enough repetitions of the same sequence, the puppy will learn that hard mouthing leads to no more playtime, and the behavior will decrease. It’s not the word that achieved this result, it’s the consequences.

By untangling yourself from the word “no” and focusing on teaching solid, useful behaviors, you will increase your dog’s chances of getting it right. You will build consistent behavior. You will reduce your own frustration, because the words you use with your dog will have reliable consequences attached to them.

– Maureen Backman, MS, CTC

Maureen is the owner and trainer of Mutt About Town in San Francisco. You can contact her at muttabouttownsf@gmail.com.