“No means never,” my grandfather told me. I was playing with his little Jack Russell Terrier named Skipper and made the mistake of using the dreaded “n”-word. My grandfather was quick to correct my language.
“You don’t say “no”,” he continued. “You show him what you want him to do instead.”
Decades later, the use of the word “no” is prohibited in my dog agility classes. Violators are appropriately shamed. The idea behind this is that the word – and all of its negative connotations – stifles a dog’s thought process. Rather than encouraging a dog to think through a problem, which is what we want, the word is intended to stop a dog in his tracks and wait for further direction. Which is not what we want. In agility it is important the dogs work independently and experiment with different behaviours. It makes it more fun for them and easier to handle them on the course.
Of course, dogs aren’t born knowing the meaning of the word “no”. It is something they have to learn through context. We humans use it instinctively and often – with our dogs, with our children, and with other adults. It takes a real conscious effort to remove it from one’s vocabulary. Fortunately, thanks to my grandfather, I was able to catch myself early on with Shiva. To this day, she doesn’t understand what the word means. However, that doesn’t mean I don’t have to be careful with the other sounds I may blurt out during training sessions. It’s not so much specific words that matter, more our meaning behind them.
Many dogs are very sensitive to tone. Some more than others. Perhaps because they don’t speak our verbal language, they are brilliant at picking up our unspoken thoughts. For instance, I could dance around the room with a happy voice singing, “no no no no no!” and Shiva would think it was the best word ever. On the flip side, I could yell “good dog!” while glaring and stomping my feet, and she’d probably run and hide. Some dogs will shut down immediately if they sense their handlers are even slightly disappointed. An inadvertent sigh can be the end of a dog’s world.
Luckily, Shiva isn’t overly sensitive. I have no delusion she prioritizes my emotions over her own pleasure. When it comes to our work together, as long as she gets to run around – and gets food as a reward for doing so – she is happy. In many ways this is a bonus. It certainly makes her easier to teach! I can sign and swear as much as I want and she’ll probably still have a good time.
However, her having a blast doesn’t always translate to achieving my goals. I have learned if I want her to focus on a task, I need to keep my emotions in check. The instant I feel my patience slide, her good behaviour slides right along with it. As we are working on some pretty advanced stuff now, it’s been a harder battle lately than ever before. When she repeatedly performs a behaviour wrong, it’s difficult not to feel a bit frustrated. But that frustration is quickly picked up by Shiva and thrown back at me. After several failures in a row – and no reward for the puppy – she has picked up this new habit of barking at me. The barking leaves me frazzled and even more frustrated. Which in turn encourages her to bark more and the cycle continues. Before I shut down and vow never to train her again, I need to learn to stop when I feel the stress building in my own brain.
Taking a break can be beneficial for us both. Often when we go back to work, hours or days later, Shiva will have magically solved the problem. Without even having to cue the behaviour she will immediately perform what I had been asking all along, as if our struggles never happened. I know if I hadn’t given her the space she needed, if I hadn’t have encouraged her to work it out, we would have missed out on many successes.
If “no means never” and I never know what I might want Shiva to do one day, I am very glad I learned early to bite my tongue.