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"No" means what exactly?

Updated: Apr 9, 2019

I find this theme emerging from training with clients and it has been pivotal in so many relationships with dogs. The Conditional Statement – The If Then Statement. You’re probably thinking I am having flashbacks to my grade school days and wondering what this has to do with training a dog. Well, how many times have you heard someone repeatedly saying “no” to a dog with no results? Or maybe it was you who was repeating that endless loop of “No!No!No!No!”.

Dig back into your memories of textbooks and chalkboards and dust off the Conditional Statement, also known as the “If/Then Statement” and apply it to the word “No”. So the statement would go like this – if no, then what? You fill in the what part. Saying no doesn’t give the dog any information or replacement behavior so they just continue doing what they started out to do. And we have never trained “no” to mean something. Sure, we could train “no” to mean freeze in your tracks, drop what you picked up, come away from the object you are standing next to, get your paws off the stove, move off the furniture, get out of the bathroom, move out of the way of that speeding car, etc. You see, “no” can have a rather nebulous meaning when humans apply it so it is no wonder dogs just keep doing what they are doing. I saw a great example of this over the weekend when I was working with an adolescent pup who had a habit of stealing items. In this case it was a garden glove laying out in the open. Instead of saying “no”, I asked the human what she wanted her dog to do and she said “come back to me” so I told her to have at it. She called out “Come” and the dog instantly dropped the glove and came running back to us much to the amazement of everyone watching. Notice that we didn’t instruct the dog to drop it, nor did the dog snatch up the glove and come running back to us with it in her mouth. She was given an alternate behavior so there was no need to continue with the glove. She was paid generously for that action because it was hard for her to move away from something that she wanted. But we figured out movement was a great motivator for her so asking her to run towards us was a great alternative. In this case, our phrase meant “if no, then come”.

So the next time you consider saying “no” to your dog, think of this conditional statement – If no, then __________ (you fill in the blank)?

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