Teaching your dog "NO!"

Useful? or not?

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The next time you use voice navigation, imagine Siri telling you where NOT to turn, what street NOT to take, and to boot, she uses an accusatory tone with you. There you are, driving through a big, busy and unfamiliar city. You are a bit nervous, not sure how to get to your destination and Siri tells you things like, “No! Don’t turn there!” “Not that street!” “Not the next one, either!” Absent is all the information on which street to look for, how far away it is, which way you’ll be turning, etc. In other words, everything you need is missing. You are blasted with loads of irrelevant information and are the victim of navigation harassment, too. That would be enough to deter anyone from wanting to travel again!

Even when Siri is working properly, she will sometimes get a bit too chatty and you can turn her off, confident that you have sufficiently grasped her instructions (and tired of hearing her repeat herself.)

Dog owners are sometimes like Siri’s Evil Twin, nagging their dogs about what they are doing “wrong,” following them around and “correcting them” when they do something that isn’t appropriate. Our poor dogs don’t have the option of shutting us off or lowering our volume or translating our gibberish into DogSpeak, but they do get very good at ignoring and avoiding us and our frequent nagging because, after all, we are overflowing with irrelevance and are no fun to be around.

We can't train the absence of a behavior

"No" means nothing in and of itself. It's a crutch, a way to make us look like we are disciplining a dog for an infraction without putting any of the training effort into teaching skills. We have to flip that way of thinking upside down and decide what we want our dog to do instead. That desired behavior can then be rewarded and a new habit will be born!

There is an infinite number of wrong answers, and “no” doesn’t help our dogs get any closer to the right ones. How do you help your dog make good decisions?

For every “no,” you feel like saying, there needs to be a corresponding “yes!” We have to find a “yes” in there somewhere, even if it’s just for a small behavior. On top of that, we need to cut the gibberish!

A very simple example:

I was recently working with a family and their young, jumpy puppy. Each time the puppy jumped up at him, the dad said, “no! Down!” He did this several times, the son joining in too, to no avail. It didn’t change the puppy’s behavior at all. Why? Because 1) jumping is a very natural thing for a puppy to do to get attention, 2) “No!” and “down!” meant nothing to her, and 3) there was no information on what to do instead of jump.

When the puppy turned towards me and was obviously thinking about jumping on me, I silently stood, arms folded in front of me (so as not to be confused with a tug toy) and became very still and quiet - and therefore boring to a busy puppy. When the puppy put all four feet on the floor, I instantly engaged with her. She got excited about this and started to jump up at me. I instantly reverted to my still/quiet stance. Repeated a few times, the puppy got the idea that keeping all four on the floor is what pays off in order for her to get what she wanted: attention.

It isn’t always this easy. Sometimes we need to engage the use of management tools to prevent the pup from taking that metaphorical wrong turn. It is our responsibility as dog owners to block off those routes and make the correct path obvious and rewarding.

The next time you feel like saying "no" to your dog, think about being that driver with Siri's Evil Twin as your navigator!