The Elephant in the Training Room: Saying No to Our Dogs

There is a lot of debate, even here between dog trainers in the Lehigh Valley, about whether we should say no to our dogs in response to undesirable behavior or for doing an incorrect behavior. So I’ve decided to give you my take.

Do I say no to my own dogs? Absolutely.
I am a human and my natural reaction to things I don’t like or that annoy or exasperate me is verbal expression, often in the form of saying “No!”

Do I believe that saying the word “no” has any training value for my dogs? Absolutely NOT.

In the training world, saying “no” or “you’re wrong” or even “eh-eh” is known as using a non-reward marker (NRM). This tells your dog that what they have done will not receive them a reward. People use this in the hopes that it will decrease undesirable behaviors.

What does the academic world have to say about it? Though plenty of people have opinions about the use of NRM’s, there have been few scientific studies to show us what the data says.

One study from CUNY Academic Works used 27 dogs to test whether NRM’s were effective when dogs were learning a new behavior. The control group consisted of dogs whose errors were ignored. The test group received a NRM. They found that dogs in the control group “reached higher levels of performance of the novel training task.” And concluded that “No-reward markers do not appear to be a highly effective form of negative feedback in this context.”

While there haven’t been many studies exclusively on the use of NRM’s and their impact on learning, there have been many studies showing that our dogs do not feel shame or guilt in response to our words. Instead, they are responding to our angry body language with appeasement behaviors like rolling on their backs, diverting their eyes or hiding from us.

What I infer from this is that our dogs are not responding to our NRM’s with an understanding of WHAT they’ve done wrong, but rather that for some reason we are upset with them. Therefore it is not useful in our dogs learning process.

So what should we do instead? Teaching our dogs what we want to do and rewarding it has much more value, efficient and power than scolding them for what they haven’t done. We can teach our dogs incompatible behaviors to replace the undesirable ones. For example, we can reward them for keeping four paws on the floor when guests enter or to go to their mat when the doorbell rings. Or we can teach them to sit next to the counter to get what they find there, instead of jumping up and taking it for themselves.

You’re welcome to say no to your dogs until you’re blue in face, the cows come home and pigs fly. I do. But you’ll need to adjust your expectations about whether this will accomplish your training goals. It will not.

If your dog is exhibiting problem behaviors or they just need some manners training in general, reach out! We’d love to help. Check out our training page for full details and pricing. Hope to hear from you soon!