The Other N-Word

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.

26 thoughts on “The Other N-Word

  1. We do use “no” in our field training. It is effective if used sparingly and only when the dog is being disobedient about something it already knows. Whenever we are having a bad day and want to end a session, we always make sure it ends on a positive note. That may mean going all the way back to the most basic element of what we have been working on. Like you, we find that more often than not the next time we train, the concept that was causing frustration comes much easier.

    Like

  2. Our Best Friend knows what No means, but it doesn’t mean he listens. Actually, now that I think about it, we tend to use more specific commands, like “stop” and “sit” and “stay.” Not that he listens to those either. 😦

    Like

  3. I agree that “no” is hard to remove from our vocabulary! When we are in training mode we have an easier time. We are more in a mode of problem solving/thinking like a dog if that makes sense and are more likely to ask for an incompatible behavior to get her to stop something we don’t like. When we really want to say no is when we are doing something else at home and Pearl barks at noises outside or goes crazy jumping and nipping at guests. When we do say it she ignores us though, so I doubt she really understands what it means.

    Like

  4. I use NO a lot, with Delilah. She is a challenging dog to work with. Even when I say it she sometimes doesn’t listen, I will try to make a concious effort not to use it anymore though. 🙂

    Like

  5. I wrote about the word “no” not to long ago. I try very hard not to use the word, but I will admit that sometimes you just can’t think fast enough to get any words out at all. Those times I have been known to use “ah!” “yuck” and “stop” too. Then I file the memory away so that the next time I will be prepared with a “sit” or “come” or “fetch” or “down” or… anything else instead.

    Like

  6. Unfortunately they do understand the word “no” but they also understand alot of other more encouraging words and tones that help them learn and progress through more difficult challenges such as unfamiliar environments, oncoming dogs during their walks as well as the usual challenges that accompany agility courses or training. Sometimes it can be very frustrating and those times are best handled by a little break.

    Like

  7. Your Grandfather was a wise man. It’s hard to stop working with a dog even when it’s going south… because we always want to salvage it… sometimes you just have to do something to end on a good note then call it a day. At least you recognize the pitfalls of trying to push through your own frustrations…i know I fall into the same pitfalls of frustrations. Rio is CRAZY sensitive and an ill-timed sigh can definitely effect his “try it” attitude he normally has and I have to go back to some easy things or use a lure but shaping essentially ends when he gets upset lol.

    Like

  8. Frustration barking is the worst! Hurley’s slowly improving at that but I can’t help but get frustrated when his barking starts and I just wanted to extend his sit stay by a few more seconds. It is usually a sign that I’ve pushed him too far in our training session or that it’s lasted too long so I need to wrap things up and try again later.

    We do use No but pretty sparingly – it’s much more effective to use more specific commands like Leave It, Off, Drop It, Out, etc. And I don’t use No when we are working on shaping a new behavior. If any of the dogs screw it up, I try to say “Uh Oh” and reset them. “Uh Oh” is said in a positive tone and I hope to instill in them that it means “nice try but not what I wanted”.

    Like

    • When you’re training for duration — keep the C/T coming at random intervals, so the C/T doesn’t get harder every single time. C/T at 3 seconds, then 1 second, then 5 seconds, then 3 seconds, then 6 seconds, etc. You’ll be less likely to frustrate Hurley that way.

      Like

  9. My dogs know what NO means. It means we’ll have to wait and try it later. I wish I had the patience to delete it from my vocabulary.

    Thanks for the reminder to try to avoid the word.

    Like

  10. I agree with Tena, your grandpapa was a wise man. 🙂

    Elli doesn’t even know her name when other people call it lol, let alone the word No. I think, if you want to have a non-reward marker, then train it as such. I accidentally did this with Elli — she now knows “Try again” and she tries something else – it has no negative connotation, it simply means that’s not what I want, do something else. I rarely use it though because she’s usually doing the right thing when I ask. Elli’s very sensitive, not super duper, but definitely acknowledges (with a barrage of calming signals) the tones of my voice even when I’m not talking to her directly.

    Like

  11. I use “no” quite a bit. For me, it is interchangeable with “hey” and used in the context of interrupting a mischievous thought before there is any real action. For example, the dogs are not to go down the stairs to the front door landing without instructions – it’s a small landing and therefore an off-limits area or else there would be cramped chaos as they greet us or visitors coming into the house. Alma is still learning this, so if I catch her contemplating going down the stairs – or even with paws on the top step, I’ll just throw out a “no” or “hey” (even tone, no yelling, growling, shouting, or squealing – sometimes preceded by her name so she’s paying attention), and she will back up or turn away. Then I’ll often call her over and give her a little love.

    As far as I’m concerned, the trick with “no”, or any other verbal signal – or really any training whatsoever – is really to keep your emotions in check, as you said. And be consistent in the meaning you attach to it.

    Like

  12. What an interesting lesson you learned from your grandfather.

    I’ve heard that I shouldn’t have named Oreo Oreo, because it ends in “o”, like “no.” He may get confused. These people must think dogs are dumb.

    I try and reserve “no” for times of emergency, but I really think tone of voice is way more influential than the actual word choice.

    Like

  13. I agree that we need to redirect instead of just saying No. But boy, it’s hard.

    No has left my vocabulary recently because Honey is such a “soft” dog. A gentle “eh” spoken at barely a whisper is enough to stop her from any bad behavior. That hasn’t always been the case with my dog.

    BTW, on the idea of our emotions and their effect on dogs, I’m currently reading Your Dog Is Your Mirror about how human emotion affects dog behavior. http://www.amazon.com/Your-Dog-Mirror-Emotional-Ourselves/dp/1577316967/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1321319107&sr=8-1.

    It’s part common sense and part New Age mumbo jumbo so I’m not sure where I’ll come out by the end. Maybe I’ll review it?

    If you read it, I’d be curious to hear your opinion.

    Like

  14. What a wise grandfather you had! I’m amazed at how he could understand that concept, so long ago, when attitudes were so different. I understand what you’re talking about with the dogs sometimes being sensitive – Chester is actually quite conscious of “disappointing” me. If I let him know I’m not pleased with a behavior, he often stops and looks to me for approval then. Not always, though, he’s quite a challenge in the attention department. lol I love your thoughts here, though!

    Like

  15. The sensitive dog in our house would be Blueberry. At the first sign that she hasn’t done what you want, she shuts down and goes to the crate. Nothing convinces her to give it another try.

    Then there’s Morgan. I could yell “no” at her all day and it wouldn’t phase her. Trust me, I’ve tried!

    Like

  16. Oh dear. If I’m trying to teach Barbie to do something and she is not doing what I want I tend to say ‘ooopsie’ in a happy tone if I have to say something. Most of the time though it’s me trying not to laugh at her.

    I definately mean ‘never’ when I say ‘no’ but the dogs don’t think that. “NO” you can not eat that thing in the bushes….. but they still try….

    Like

  17. Interesting post.. My poor Luna girl has had quite a few methods used on her as she was my first personal dog, and I have worked for a couple different trainers since getting her. But she does well, I just make sure I don’t expect her to listen on a dime when I use so many different methods. I would say overall I don’t use ‘no” very often but I am sure I have other fill ins. I have always made a point to not even bother to ask if I can’t make her follow throw, that way little miss independent is not given the chance to blow me off.

    I think the rule for your agility class is a great one, as that is soooo much about creativity, fun, and bonding. Another thing to keep in mind overall it is a safe environment, whereas some of the other activities we do with our dogs involve more risk so sometimes having better control is a good thing. I have to act like a lunatic beyond what I thought I was possible of to make my Vizsla want to do things in agility, and I like the challenge even if I sound like a complete nerd. When it comes to teaching her tricks, we deal with the barking too so I feel your pain. I get it even when I am asking her something I know she knows and she simple does not want to do it. She can be a booger like that, but sometimes it is due to her getting frustrated and it’s much easier to bark than think. We are still trying to be creative in solving this “problem.”

    Would love to know what you all are working on.
    Anna
    http://www.akginspiration.com

    Like

  18. Hmmm… I probably need to work on losing the “no” too. Though I will say that Bella is usually pretty easy to distract. I just say “hey” or “Bella” and she’ll (most of the time) stop whatever she’s doing an focus on me instead.

    Like

  19. I never thought of it that way. That is one smart grandpa you have. We really don’t use it much around here, unless it is something serious. But I agree and will have to further contemplate your insight. Thanks for the viewpoint.

    Like

  20. I learned early on that tone was more important than words when it came to Daisy. She might get into something (rarely) and I might be upset, but I have learned to just take a step back, relax, take a deep breath, and just clean it up. Daisy is ultra sensitive. You mentioned the sigh? Yup. She’s sensitive to that too. Instead, I just talk to her in a positive voice.
    She taught me not to use No. She taught me that everything is not a huge problem or issue. She has taught me to be less upset by the small and big things. And I am a better dog owner because of it.

    Like

  21. I try to reserve “no” for the ireallyreallymeanitstop situations. When Dexter is exhibiting behaviors that I don’t like (which is a lot), I have been using the “quit” command. His 5 1/2 month old brain is starting to clue in, very slowly…

    Like

Comments are closed.