“No, no, no, no, no!” I’m not going to lie and say it never pops out of my mouth… in the heat of a dangerous or scary or shocking moment it does. Not too long ago I was outside shoveling snow off of our front porch when Shayne did something … crazy. We have a glass patio table out there and I keep some of their toys up there when we are done playing outside. Well, the table had about 8inches of snow on top so just the tippy-tops of the jolly balls were visible. I hear this ka-thunk noise and turn around to see Shayne ON the table–which was now wobbling all over the place. She’s never done this before and I was shocked by her behavior and concerned about about the structural integrity of the whole table–I shouted “Shayne-y! NO NO NO!” She just stopped and looked at me with this proud of herself look. It wasn’t until I told her what to do, “Get off!” did Shayne remedy the undesirable behavior (being on the table). “No no no” communicated nothing to her… all it did was get her attention.
One of the issues I have with handlers who are constantly “no-no”-ing their dogs is that it’s a very poor way to communicate with their dog. Imagine you walk into a room, sit in a chair, pick up a book, start reading the book, and you start bouncing your leg…. I shout “NO!” What behavior do you think I’m objecting to? There are multiple behaviors going on here… you probably would have no idea what to stop doing. However, if I had said, “Oh my gosh, get off that chair,” you would have known exactly what I wanted you to fix. But since “no” is such a vague and nondescript word, you failed to guess the correct behavior to change and wound up on the floor because the chair you chose was broken.
Even though humans rely on verbal language, “no” is not regularly used as a directive cue once children have gained enough language. Parents are frequently saying, “No no” when their toddler pulls hair or reaches towards a forbidden object. The child is either then redirected onto a different object or further explanation is given, “No no! You do not pull mommy’s hair.” The “No!” serves as a tool to momentarily stop a behavior while a parent has time to redirect or further explain. As kids get older and have a more powerful grasp on the language, parents begin to clarify their requests from “no no” to “do NOT throw that fork at your brother”–parents stop giving a vague no to giving very clear instructions. When thinking about how I use the word “no” it is rarely if ever used as a cue… it’s more often a negative answer to a question–“Do you want to go to the movies?” “No.”
As dog handlers, if we want a behavior to stop we need to be able to communicate that to our dogs. Since “no” is so nonspecific and because dogs don’t have a strong enough grasp on the human language to understand phrases like “don’t jump on mommy,” we need to find a way to communicate more directly. If a dog is jumping up when greeting you and you say “No!” what does that mean to the dog… no greeting you, no being in your space, no jumping, no running to the doorway, no wagging his tail, no being excited? If instead you either start by asking for an incompatible behavior or ask for one if they jump, you will be communicating much more clearly with the pup and hopefully prevent the need for a frustrated or angry “No!”.
This move away from saying “no” all the time is something I’ve been explaining a lot lately in our Adult Basic obedience classes. I’ve heard some very frustrated and angry “No”s in our classes and that’s something I’ve been trying to address. “No” happens sometimes but it’s more effective to instead manage the situation, cue incompatible behaviors, cue what you want them to do, and heavily reward positive choices.