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Is “NO” a useful word in dog training?


What does the word NO mean? The short answer, is that to a dog, the word NO does not necessarily mean anything at all. Dogs don’t understand English words – they simply recognise the particular sound of a word. Dogs learn that certain words predict that something will happen – for example, how many of us spell W-A-L-K or S-U-P-P-E-R at home, because we know if we say those words our dogs will start getting excited?Dogs also learn that if they execute certain behaviours in response to certain words, they can make good stuff happen – for example, if they place their bottoms on the grounds when they hear “sit” they will get a reward. This last example is the definition of a cue. A cue is an antecedent (something that comes before) that elicits a particular behaviour. So, sit, down, stay, come, roll over, paw, spin, jump etc. would all be examples of cues.

Can NO be a cue? Well, technically any word can be a cue. I could use the word “banana” to elicit a sit from my dog, if that is the antecedent that I have taught for that particular behaviour i.e. if I have rewarded my dog repeatedly for sitting after I have said the word banana. BUT for “NO” to be a cue, it has to be followed by a specific behaviour. So, one has to then ask, what behaviour would a person expect from a dog when the word “NO” is used?


When most people use the word “NO” with their dogs, what do they mean? In the English language, “NO” is an expression of dissatisfaction with something and usually an attempt to stop something immediately. “No, don’t do that”, “No, I don’t like that” or “I said NO!”. When working with dogs we generally use words that make sense to us, even if the dog does not understand the word itself, so in my experience, when people use the word “NO” in dog training it is an attempt to tell the dog that what they did was “wrong” or to stop them doing something. What they are expecting is not a particular behaviour from the dog, but rather the STOPPING of whatever the dog is doing at that time. There is a word for a something that stops or decreases behaviour – that word is PUNISHMENT.


Punishment is the application of a stimulus, contingent on a behaviour, that leads to a decrease in behaviour. In fact, we know that punishment leads to a decrease in ALL behaviour or what is known as "general inhibition". That is one of the reasons why it has drawbacks as a training method i.e. it does not teach a dog what to do, it simply stops them from doing anything at all. This is not very helpful if you want a willing partner to work with, who enthusiastically participates in the training process. If you want a dog that doesn’t do much at all except avoid trouble (and you), well then it might work for you.


So, if “NO” does not elicit a particular behaviour it is not a cue – if it leads to an inhibition of behaviour it is either a punishment, a “conditioned punisher” or a “no reward marker”. Let’s have a look at these concepts in more detail:


Having someone screaming "NO" in an angry voice would be frightening for many dogs and would likely lead to the dog stopping whatever it was doing, cringing and withdrawing from the person. Used in this way "NO" would be positive punishment (adding something nasty or unpleasant to decrease behaviour). Positive reinforcement trainers avoid using positive punishment, because of the emotional effect it has on dogs (fear, anxiety and long-term stress).


A conditioned punisher is something that is not inherently unpleasant, but that by association is unpleasant. So, the word “NO” said in a neutral voice to a dog would have no inherent meaning. However, if the sound of the word “NO” predicted an angry outburst from the dog’s owner or any kind of physical punishment (smacking, yanking on the lead etc.) then by association the word “NO” would be a punishment. Anyone who wishes to focus on positive reinforcement and fear free training methods, would not use the word no, or any word, as a conditioned punisher.


A “No reward Marker” (NRM) is a neutral stimulus (something that has no meaning on its own) that predicts the removal of a reward (negative punishment). NRM's are sometimes said to be useful in training, because they let the dog know when they have gone off track and will not be getting a reward. Common NRM’s are words like “too bad”, “whoops” or “try again”. The idea is to use them in a completely neutral tone, simply to give the dog information - a bit like playing “hotter-colder” as a child. So, a common example would be, if a dog breaks a stay to say, “too bad” and then not give the dog a treat. There is a lot of debate around the usefulness of NRM’s in training. Excessive use of NRM’s has been shown to lead to stress and frustration in dogs. There is also a very good point that in positive reinforcement training we should be setting dogs up to succeed so we can maximise reinforcement (the more a dog is reinforced for something, the quicker the behaviour is learned), so putting dogs in situations where we constantly have to use NRM’s is wasting time and making training less efficient.


Whatever your opinion on NRM’s or their usefulness, the reality is that NO is seldom said in a “neutral” tone! It is usually expressed in frustration and displeasure or is shouted at the dog. It is therefore most commonly used as positive punishment.


There is one other possibility: No can simply mean absolutely nothing at all to do the dog. If it has no negative connotations, does not predict anything good or bad happening and has no effect on the dog’s behaviour, then using the word NO is a complete waste of time. It teaches the dog nothing and it would be far more productive to focus on working out what it is you want the dog to do and teaching a cue for that instead or figuring out how to manage the environment to prevent the dog from engaging in whatever it is you don’t want them to do in the first place.


Is “no” a cue – NO, it is not a cue or at least I have never met anyone who used it as a cue!

Should we be using “no” or any word as a punisher or conditioned punisher? Not if we call ourselves positive reinforcement trainers!

Could we use “no” as a NRM? Yes, technically we could, but it is not an ideal NRM due to its inextricable negative connotations in the English language and our daily use of the word in rather more than neutral tones!

Should we say it, if it means nothing? Well, what would be the point?

I was recently quite dismayed to read an article in which a dog trainer stated something along the lines of: “I taught my children “no” so I teach my dogs “no” as well. The idea of not being able to say “no” to a dog is something we need to get over”. The author went on to say that the word “no” was a cue to her dogs – when I commented on the article and asked what she thought her dogs understood this cue to mean, I didn’t get an answer.

One of the first things we teach dog owners in our classes, is to avoid using the word “NO” with their dogs. I even know of a trainer who has a “swear jar” for clients who say “NO” to their dogs in class. So, I thought I would take some time to explain why myself and other force free trainers avoid this word like the plague:

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