As dog owners, one of the first things we say to our dog is “no” to communicate with our furry friends when they are doing something we don’t like – but should we?
Sometimes you’ll hear dog trainers, or “experts” say to tell your dog or puppy “No!” in a firm voice, or stern tone, and that will remedy your dog’s behavior when things are going wrong, or when they’re getting basic commands incorrect, but I’m kind of here to tell you that it just doesn’t help you get where you’re going and, actually, can be massively counter productive!
I often withdraw its use for most of my clients and recommend most puppy parents avoid it like the plague! Yet, contradictory to this, I (as a professional trainer) use no in my training sessions with my dog (I’ll explain, I promise!) but it sounds hypocritical, right? But bear with me, I promise it makes sense.
While it might seem like a natural way to correct unwanted behavior, using “no” in dog training is rarely recommended. In this blog post, we will explore the reasons why “no” is usually not an effective training tool and suggest alternative approaches to help your dog learn the desired behavior.
The Problem with “No”
Traditionally, pet owners use the Stern “No!” and a waggy finger to rebuke their dog for inappropriate behavior from biting, to peeing in the wrong space. But there are several reasons why using the word “no” in dog training is not something I often recommended for the average pet parent.
No Has No Meaning: To begin with, No has zero meaning, so when we churn our this word when our new dog or puppy exhibits undesirable behaviors, they’re going to start creating an association, because our dogs learn well, and they don’t want us mad, so, they will absorb that word and build a pattern of when we use it… but it could mean anything from Jellyfish to quantum theory to them.
Confusion: There is too much variability in circumstances, timing, and behavior, which can lead to confusion for the dog. For example, if you use “no” when your dog is chewing on a shoe, they might not understand that it’s the chewing on the shoe that’s the problem, rather than the act of chewing itself.
Can cause fear: we humans are chronically bad at managing our tone and frustration when it comes to animals. And when we say “No” it often comes out as “no.” then “No.” then “No!” and quickly we escalate that tone and that becomes scary for our dogs. They may not know what No means, but now it’s a scary word.
Learned Irrelevance: The word “no” can become subject to learned irrelevance, meaning the dog may lose its understanding of the word as it is used too frequently or without specificity. If you constantly say “no” for various reasons, your dog might start to ignore the command altogether.
Frustration and Miscommunication: Using “no” may indicate that the dog’s needs are not being met, which can lead to frustration and miscommunication. For instance, if your dog is chewing on something because they are bored or anxious, simply saying “no” does not address the root cause of the behavior.
Lack of Direction: The command “no” is meaningless without additional direction, as it does not teach the dog what you want them to do instead. If you say “no” when your dog jumps on the couch, they don’t know what the desired behavior is—should they sit, lie down, or move away?
Counterproductivity: Overusing the word “no” can be counterproductive and may not effectively teach the dog what you want them to do. Repeatedly saying “no” can create a negative association, which might make your dog anxious or fearful, hindering their learning process even further.
Punishment Just Isn’t Required: Modern dog training (or animal training in general) just doesn’t require punishment like No or physical correction. We’re beyond that! And we know that this training method? Is simply not as effective in the long run.
No can be a huge problem, and sure, it’s hard to know the right thing, especially when the training process is such a fluid and there are so many trainers out there telling you how to do this, or that… But my biggest reason to stop my clients saying No in their training is…
The Dreaded “No” Cycle…
This is one of the worst things that can happen, particularly in puppyhood, but with any dog, and leans into our own pessimistic nature sometimes. But a No Cycle, is something I refer to as when I or my clients get into this obsession of saying No. And the more we say No, the less good behavior we notice. Which makes us come to the conclusion that we have theworst dog in the world. Which often isn’t the case, it’s just that we’ve convinced ourself they’re this way because we say No so much.
This is a big reason I ban the use of No with some clients and ask them instead to focus on praise to break the No Cycle, and you’d be amazed, it’s the best way to get our dogs re-focused.
Alternatives to “No”
Instead of using “no,” I will always recommend we focus on positive reinforcement and teaching the dog what you want them to do, rather than what you don’t want them to do. Here are some alternative approaches:
Redirect: If your dog is engaging in an undesired behavior, redirect them to a more appropriate activity. For example, if your dog is chewing on a shoe, offer them a chew toy instead. In terms of a shoe, I’d probably recommend a pig’s ear or a cow hoof or something that’s got that slightly pliable, animal by-product vibe a this will meet the need that your dog has to chew!
Teach and Reward: Teach your dog the desired behavior or a mutually exclusive behavior and reward them when they perform it. For instance, if you want your dog to sit instead of jumping on people, use a verbal cue like “sit” and reward them with a treat and praise when they comply. This is an example of a mutually exclusive behavior because if you’re sitting you can’t jump!
Give good rewards: It sounds simple, but in the use of positive reinforcement, we always talk about rewards, and that may be a tasty treat, it might be a tennis ball, it might even be a real-life reward. But getting that motivator right, will often decrease the amount of No you feel you need in your life.
Manage the Environment: This is probably the biggest component of ditching the “No”. Prevent unwanted behaviors by managing your dog’s environment. For example, if your dog tends to chew on shoes, keep the shoes out of reach or in a closed closet! It’s a great way to be proactive about training.
Address the Root Cause: Identify and address the root cause of the undesired behavior, such as boredom, anxiety, overtiredness, or lack of exercise. Providing appropriate sleep mental stimulation, regular exercise, and addressing any underlying issues will be the biggest step towards remedying any issue.
And don’t get me wrong, you’re going to learn along the way. You’re going to make mistakes, but when you do, you learn something new for next time, remembering that we really want to highlight positive behaviors and teach new skills.
Note: Clicker training is very good at getting you to focus on the good stuff, if you’re struggling and need a strict methodology to follow.
When I Use “No” – No Reward Markers
I actually didn’t use no for a long time. I found it created that “no spiral” for me and added to my frustration.
Now, I use “no” as what is called a no-reward marker (NRM) when we’re learning new tricks particularly with my Shepherd because I deliver it calmly! And if you deliver it in a calm, even tone and pair it with positive reinforcement for desired behaviours, then there’s no reason to not use No — but this is a very very human problem as a lot of people will struggle, and I did too!
I actually started with “Nope” Because I could say that cheerily when we were teaching a new skill. But that can be difficult for new pet parents, and I get that. So, whilst I don’t ban it, I encourage my dog parents to not use it.
Yet – I don’t use it with my hounds, because they’re not as smart in the traditional sense, and I don’t feel like it’s going to achieve anything in everyday situations. Where as my Shepherd I feel is smart enough to understand the different ways I’m marking what he does (my hounds arent stupid, they’re smart in a different way to Indie).
The point here, I think, is that it’s very much down to you. It can be used, but it’s very much no longer the stern, grouchy “No!” most people associate it with.
So remember, if we’re using No as a no-reward marker, it is essentially a signal that lets your dog know that their current behavior will not result in a reward, but (importantly) it does not carry any negative consequences.
When using “no” as a no-reward marker, it’s important to keep the following in mind:
Consistency: Be consistent with your use of the NRM. Use the same tone and timing each time to avoid confusing your dog.
Timing: Deliver the NRM immediately after the undesired behavior occurs to help your dog understand the connection between their action and the lack of a reward.
Positive reinforcement: Pair the NRM with positive reinforcement for desired behaviors. For example, if your dog jumps on you and you say “no” in an even tone, immediately reward them when they have all four paws on the ground.
Avoid punishment: Ensure that the NRM is not perceived as a punishment. Keep your tone neutral and avoid any negative body language or facial expressions.
Clear expectations: Make sure your dog understands what is expected of them by teaching and reinforcing the desired behavior before using the NRM.
Watch for frustration: I find that if I’m not being clear and indie’s not getting it (for whatever reason!) that rolling it back and making it simpler is better and more productive over all. I always look for frustration in his body language, but typically when he’s done he’ll bark at me – and I’m fine with that! That’s his way of saying he’s done and I didn’t make it work for him. I make a mental note to make that exercise easier. Typically though, we rarely get to that any more!
By using “no” as a no-reward marker in a consistent and positive manner, I find it helps to effectively communicate with your dog and guide them towards the desired behavior without creating negative associations or confusion.
It’s good to note though, that the jury is out on NRM’s in dog training and there is no scientific evidence in its efficacy or lack of efficacy.
To No Or Not To No…
Whether it’s with an older dog or younger dogs, No isn’t needed to get your puppy’s attention, it’s not needed in everyday life. It’s important to remember that our dog’s emotional state is just as important as ours, and if you think you can manage No as a no-reward marker, then by all means! Go ahead. Just be very, very careful about that No Spiral. Dog behavior is complex, but in daily life we need to have a strong method of communicating with our dog, and paramount to this is the use of positive reinforcement.
If you’re struggling on this, I can absolutely help! Reach out and let’s get you working with a multi-award winning dog trainer!
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Author, Ali Smith
Ali Smith is the Positive Puppy Expert, dog trainer and is the founder of Rebarkable. She is passionate about helping puppy parents get things right, right from the start. To help create a puppy capable of being a confident and adaptable family member and keep puppies out of shelters.
Ali has won multiple awards for her dog training, and has had her blog (this blog!) rated as 2021 & 2022 worlds’ best pet blog!
Thanks to depositphotos.com for the images!