My Dog Thinks Her Name is “NO!”: Better Advice from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Seven Reasons Why this Simple Command Can Be Ineffective
–Guest Blog by Billie Groom
*NOTE: the information in this article is in reference only to dogs who are over six months of age.
Do you feel as though you are constantly telling your dog “NO!”… resulting in him or her flipping-you-the-proverbial-bird? Does it seem like your dog simply ignores you whenever you say it?
Renowned trainer, Brandon McMillan’s, claim to fame is the use of only seven commands, one of which is “NO!”. Essentially, reacting to an unwanted behavior by using the word “NO!” adheres to one half of operant conditioning– a scientifically proven training method–so it stands to reason it should be effective in deterring unwanted behavior, right? Well, depending on the application, it can be non-aversive and effective with puppies and with some dogs, but can fall short with many dogs over the age of six months and/or rescued dogs. Here’s why.
“NO!” is often ineffective and even counter-productive because…
1) It assumes the dog does not know the behavior is “wrong” or unwanted.
Dogs raised in a “good home” where regular training occurs, learn expected behaviors during puppyhood through traditional conditioning methods. When dogs hit the adolescent stage, however, despite knowing “right from wrong” behaviors, many still choose to do the wrong behavior, even when told “No!”. In fact, repeating this command can lead to an annoying game that often highlights the unwanted behavior. This is especially true for dogs from unconventional backgrounds, who have perhaps been rehomed, since they have learned behaviors which work in their favor and achieve their goal. They understand “NO!” is attempting to discourage a behavior, but they: a) do not see the value in changing the behavior or ; b) are too nervous to stop; or c) there is a combination of both. Attempting to teach them the behavior is “wrong” through reinforcements goes against their learned behavior, decreases our bond with our pets, and gives them the perception we do not understand their needs.
2) It is reactive rather than proactive in nature.
Pro-active prevention is proven to be more effective than reactive correction for many dogs. The word “N0!” can be applied just prior to an unwanted action occurring to deter the action, but the dog’s brain may have already developed the thought pattern, meaning they will likely try the behavior in the future when they know we are unable to prevent it ahead of time.
3) It requires the unwanted behavior to occur first, often leading to an unwanted routine.
Once the unwanted behavior has occurred, saying “NO!” followed by, for example, removing the dog’s front paws from your chest, commonly requires praise or reward (patting) when the dog does the right behavior (sitting or standing calmly). Jumping, followed by the commands, down, off, or NO!, leads to the dog doing the right behavior and getting patted, which becomes the routine. Commands that correct an unwanted behavior do not prevent the behavior or teach the expected behavior.
4). It does not have an action associated with it.
Although “Off” and “Down” have actions associated with them, “NO!” does not. It is impossible for a dog to perform the action of “NO!”. This does not mean it is not effective in expressing disapproval of the behavior, but it is not allowing the dog to learn the expected behavior. To do this, we need a command that pro-actively prevents the unwanted behavior and allows the dog to achieve his goal.
5) It does not change perception.
Conditioning methods, of which operant conditioning is the most common, are not designed to change perception to change behavior. To effectively address behaviors associated with fear, anxiety, and aggression, it is proven more effective to address the reason for the behavior, which is the dog’s self-perceived need to do a behavior. (NOTE: “reason” refers to the dog’s perception based on learned behavior that determines actions; “cause” refers to either genetics, a specific incident, or a disadvantaged upbringing, which, although important, are not the factors we focus on.)
6). It cannot be taught at positive times.
Because the command is intended to discourage unwanted behavior, it can only be applied when the dog does an unwanted behavior. Expected behaviors can also be taught during positive times, but commands that can only be applied during negative times can be “weak” (have little effect), or, have a negative effect.
7) It can confuse or scare dogs, increasing unwanted behaviors.
Dogs who display behaviors associated with fear, anxiety, or aggression have, mostly likely, learned the behavior that achieves their goal (ie; keeping people at bay, acquiring food). Telling them they cannot do a behavior they know is effective makes no sense to them. Discouraging or preventing their natural actions can increase their fear or anxiety and, in turn, increase the behaviors stemming from these emotions.
So, is it wrong to use the word “NO!”?
Saying “NO!”–if the command is applied in a non-aversive manner– can be effective. Forms of negative reinforcements that are non-aversive–termed “positive correction” and “positive punishment”– can be effective. However, when these reinforcements are ineffective, continuing to rely on them can cause adverse reactions. It is human nature to discourage unwanted behavior, of which saying “no” is a common reaction, and when applied calmly and clearly, can be effective. Non-aversive, reactive techniques to discourage unwanted behaviors are termed “positive correction” or “positive punishment”, and these are often effective during puppyhood to teach “right” vs “wrong” behaviors. If the behavior is stemming from fear or anxiety, it is recommended to apply methods which take more of a therapeutic approach, such as C.B.T. Counter conditioning, using associative techniques, and calming techniques, as explained here by Steve Dale, are also effective.
Instead of increasing the value of the reward, or incorporating negative reinforcements, we can switch from Conditioning methods to Canine Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Canine CBT takes a holistic, pro-active approach, that does not rely on reinforcements, making the command “NO!” unnecessary. (Spoiler – Canine CBT uses only four commands). In my next article, I will explain how I use CBT to help people show their dogs that they understand and respect their specific needs, encouraging dogs who ignore “no” to let go of behaviors we do not like, and make better decisions where everyone wins.
There are many wrong ways to work with dogs, as Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, Steve Dale, explains. But luckily, there is no “one right way” to do so either–leaving room for our dogs to be individuals. As a scientifically-proven methodology that is inherently non-aversive, CBT know how to listen, they will always let us know which approach or methodology they prefer. It is our responsibility to meet their needs by having the skills and knowledge on the most up to date, non-aversive, and effective methods. I am passionate about Cognitive Behavioral Therapy because it enables us to help dogs live their very best lives.