Why "NO!" is a No-No

It’s a familiar scene to many pet owners: Fido is gnawing the couch or has gotten into the trash and is dragging rubbish all over the new carpet. Naturally, your first reaction may be to shout, “No!” Fido stops and drops the moldy chicken casserole as you chant, “No! No! No! Bad dog!”

He stopped, right? So what could possibly be wrong with telling your dog, “No?”

Why You Should Strike “No” From Your Training Vocabulary

“No” is not a command unless you have intentionally trained a behavior using as a cue, “No.” Telling your dog “no” does not tell him to do anything. As we’ve already discussed, one of the best ways to get rid of a problem behavior is to train an incompatible behavior in its place. “No” is not a behavior, and can’t replace an undesirable behavior. The best you can hope for is to startle your dog into ceasing an undesirable behavior.

However, even if that works, “No” is such a commonly used word, and so often repeated to dogs, that some dogs think it’s their name or a friendly greeting from their owner, If you have a tendency to scold, “No, no, no, no,” test the theory: Go into another room and call cheerfully, “NO!” Your dog may come in wagging his tail, thinking he’s heard his name! Even if your dog isn’t quite so habituated to hearing “no” that he comes when his “name” is called, he may still lose interest in the word after many repetitions, creating a vicious circle where you shout over and over, and your dog ignores you because you are repeating yourself. Dogs, like children, tune out messages that are both repetitive and confusing.

Training-Friendly Alternatives

If you want to startle your dog away from doing something naughty, don’t shout, “No.” Instead, consider making a shake can. Put pennies or pebbles inside an empty soda can so that it makes a loud rattle when dropped. Then, drop the shake can when you catch your dog behaving badly, and praise her when the noise causes her to turn away from her mischief.

Immediately substitute a desirable behavior by having a toy or chew ready to offer to your dog. If she associates chewing the couch with a startling noise, but associates walking away from the couch with receiving a chew, you’re less likely to find furniture shredded.

But Why’s That Behavior Occurring?

However, if a bad behavior is happening, it’s likely that you also need to rethink the way you’re managing your dog’s schedule. By the time a couch has been chewed or the trash strewn around the house, your dog has already had the opportunity to engage in an undesirable and self-reinforcing activity. Trash is tasty and playing with it alleviates boredom. Chewing the couch brings relief to sore teething gums, or soothes separation anxiety. There’s no guarantee that any alternative behavior you offer will be more reinforcing than the undersirable one, so focus first on preventing the behaviors you don’t want.

Small puppies should never be loose in the house without direct supervision. The same goes for adolescents that are teething, but haven’t yet become reliable about chewing appropriate objects. Attach a leash to your belt, or use baby gates, play pens, and a crate to keep your dog within sight while you’re home and out of trouble when you’re not.

Older dogs developing a problem may need to be confined as you would a puppy, or they may simply need a change of pace. If your pup has grown up, but his exercise level has stayed the same, he may be misbehaving due to boredom or excess energy. A puppy can burn energy just playing in the yard more easily than can an adult dog, who needs more mental and physical stimulation in order to feel tired.

A Final Word

Just like your dog, you can be retrained by replacing an undesirable behavior with an acceptable, incompatible one. If you’ve been using the word “no” for too long to abandon it completely, try replacing it with, “Ah, ah, ah,” using a sharp, falling tone, rather than the rising, sing-song tone of, “No, no, no.” Combine this with a shake can or a clap or your hands, and you’ll startle your dog away from causing trouble easily. Then reward your dog for a desirable behavior, and treat yourself to a pat on the back for replacing “no” with a less common noise.

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3 Responses

  1. Dr. KC
    | Reply

    I love this post and completely agree with you! What stuck out to me the most was the use of the word “No!” I never use the word “No!” I always use “Ah Ah Ah” as you have suggested here. It works just as well without leaving the one being disciplined feeling badly inside.

    Even though you may have taught less desirable ways to discipline your children or pets, you can always learn new ones and start using them immediately.

    Thank you for writing this article! As a child and animal lover, I appreciate it whole heartedly!

    Doc KC

  2. Trish
    | Reply

    Very interesting, I never thought of that. Does this work for Cats as well?

  3. Jelena
    | Reply

    Dr. KC,

    Thanks for the supportive comment! I completely agree– the excuse “I was raised that way and I turned out fine,” or “I’ve always disciplined my dogs that way,” is not a good enough reason to use outdated punitive methods of raising dogs or kids.



    Absolutely! Cats are tougher because they can only handle about 3-5 reinforcers in a training session. Any more and most kitties get bored. However, one great way to use teaching an incompatible behavior with a kitty is to train her to jump onto a chair instead of the counter or kitchen table when she is hungry. Lure kitty onto the chair with a toy, then make a disctinctive sound either with a clicker or with a clicking pen for shy cats, and give a favorite treat.

    Repeat this 2-3 times in a row every day, and within a couple of weeks most cats will reliably jump on their special chair to beg for food instead of jumping on the table or counter.


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