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When to Use No in Dog Training

“Just Say No!” was an advertising campaign, part of the U.S. War on Drugs, prevalent during the 1980s. The message was a good one: “No” is simple, clear, and a very effective way of communicating. Our society teaches us that we should have a deep respect for the word when we hear it. Even children are taught that there are times when they should tell an adult “no.” So why do some trainers think that dogs should not be told “no”?  The answer is complex, but worth exploring.

One contributing factor is the fast evolution of dog training toward positive methods and away from punishment. Even service dogs are being trained using food for rewards — unthinkable not so long ago. This vast expansion of knowledge has transformed the world of dog training. Our dogs are reaping the benefits of being taught how to be better companions with training techniques that are not only a kinder way to teach for both dog and trainer, but often work better, too.

With any evolution, certain trends will develop within it. Individuals coming into the field are influenced by the current trend and may only learn within the trend. One current trend in dog training is a belief that if we tell our dogs “no” we risk damaging critical elements that influence
our relationship with our dogs — the elements that might influence the dog the most. When key elements like trust and respect are sacrificed through harsh training methods, a dog’s confidence may deteriorate. This can actually make
some behavioral issues worse, as well as deflate the dog and negatively impact learning. 

If a trainer were to adopt the philosophy of “first, do no harm,” he or she might decide it best to simply tell all  clients to avoid using the word “no.” The theory is that the dog can learn through a combination of positive training techniques and management techniques. A very simplified definition of management is to keep the dog away from what causes the unwanted behavior to surface. This popular recipe will be more successful for some people with certain types of dogs than it will for others.

The bottom line is this: If training your dog using all positive methods combined with management gets you the desired results, you have achieved success for that dog. But what if it doesn’t work?

It helps to remember that dogs and people are all individuals. The training requirements that one person has for a particular breed/temperament of dog could be very different from someone else’s. If you have a very easygoing dog that can’t reach your counters and requires very little exercise so he never needs to be off-leash, then your training does not have to be extensive. If you want to hike in the wilderness with a couple of Jack Russell Terriers off-leash, you will need a great number of training tools, time, and likely professional help. You will also need those dogs to understand what “no” means. Every dog owner should determine if their dog needs to learn the word “no” or not. 

Here are some tips to take into consideration:

When to Use “No

Saying “no” does not take the place of teaching your dog what you what from him. I do not use “no” in initial training. I use “no” once training is in place and my dog needs a reminder that this is a behavior that is unacceptable.

“No” can be said in different ways; I use many variations to communicate with my dogs. I can let my dogs know if they are making a little mistake or great big one that could jeopardize our safety. My dogs do not resent me or the command. It is used to get them onto the right track. It often ends up in a celebration or a reward. My relationship is rich with my dogs because they can trust me to provide them with the information they need to stay on the right track. “No” is just a part of our system of communication. 

What determines if “No” is Appropriate

The age of the dog: Using “no” when a pup is too young teaches the pup to ignore it.

The breed/temperament of the dog: Some dogs are more sensitive than others; training has to be adjusted to suit the dog.

The learning history up to that point: How long the dog has been practicing the unwanted behavior determines when “no” can come into the training.

The lesson itself: Is the dog learning a trick like “shake a paw” (not needed) vs. “don’t steal food of the counter” (likely needed).

If you have a dog that has behavioral disorders and is possibly not stable, you should be working with a specialist who has had success with your dog’s breed with that particular issue. If you have a well-balanced, exuberant dog that you want to have stellar manners, so that you can take him everywhere and enjoy life off leash, “no” can be a very useful tool. It should simply mean, “You can’t do that, pal, ever, let me teach you what I want you to do instead.”

Sandy Rogers has specialized in dog behavior since 1989. Her career went solely to the sport of agility when she founded ACE Dog Sports in San Francisco in 1999. Her specialty is getting the most out of the nontraditional breeds. Her students accomplishments are a source of pride in and out of the competition ring. With her border collie Brink and JRT Quill, Sandy is a four-time National Agility Champion and represented the USA at the World Agility Open in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Quilly brought home gold, silver, and bronze medals. She has written for Clean Run Magazine since 2009, teaches seminars in person and online, and has three DVDs. Learn more at ACEDogSports.com.

Each month, this column is written by a different trainer or dog professional. If you’d like to contribute, contact Editor@BayWoof.com.

Main article photo by: Vincent Scherer