Howling: Music to My Ears
February 22, 2017
February 22, 2017

Just Say No !??!?

I realize that in some groups, there is a current taboo on saying NO to a dog. This has led me to consider briefly the idea of naming a dog Noh after the Japanese theatre form. But recently I made a crack about the famed artist Christy Brown and his drinking escapades in a wheelbarrow (look it up! even I can't make this stuff up). Another trainer standing nearby looked absolutely shocked at my comment. I figured she was going to lecture me on making fun of someone who painted with his left foot (I was not - I was defining a state of inebriation wherein one forgets the body in the wheelbarrow). To my surprise, she instead asked, "How do you know about Christy Brown!!??" There was an odd emphasis on "you." I responded that I was unaware I wasn't supposed to know about him, therefore had absorbed his rather interesting tale and tucked it into my brain for use -- well, for use in exactly the kind of moment I had been having before her surprise took over the conversation.

So, claiming my dog No was named after a specific Japanese theatre style would probably just earn me more such conversations ("How do you know about Noh?" "I don't know.. I just know Noh."). I don't like those conversations, and besides, the whole point of naming a dog No would be lost.

And here's the point: dogs really can absorb the word NO with amazing grace. In fact, some dogs seem to think NO is actual encouragement, nay, cheerleading of a sort! It has zero effect on their behavior, which proves that we can teach dogs to disregard many of the gems that drip from our lips. NO can be as meaningless as flurd or brinst or any other sound you care to make. Because dogs are always in search of meaning and relevance and clues to what is cool and what is not cool. (Unlike cats who apparently are only looking for clues regarding how to get the dim 2 legged ones to open another can of food and provide warm, soft places after they are done killing small things with long tails and birds who fly too slowly.)

Life with dogs and cattle and horses and donkeys and pigs and chickens and parrots and fish and other social species has taught me that social animals want and need clear information on what is and is not acceptable behavior. Such information is key to maintaining harmony, a strong motivation in any social animal. That clear information includes YES and NO as well as a lot of nuanced information in between those two poles.

Let's take the human social being for a moment. You're driving down the road with a friend. A friend you love. A friend who would drop anything at a moment's notice to help you. A friend who could call you up at 2 AM crying so hard you move the phone away from your ear lest the snot comes through the lines but because you're pretty sure you recognize the sobs, you wait until your friend finally says, "It's me..." That kind of friend.

It's a nice day for a drive, and you and your friend are enjoying that wordless silence that only good friends find comfortable. But as you drive, you realize your friend is tapping her nails on the car's armrest, keeping time with something heard only in her head. You find this very annoying. Really annoying. But because you love your friend, you decide to ignore it. Somehow that makes it even more annoying. Your friend is unaware of your struggle to let her be, and so, unless you bring it to her attention, she will blithely and happily continue to tap her nails.

You're a trainer, so you know your options. You can try to ignore it. Never a good choice for behavior that doesn't need your approval or reinforcement. You could positively reinforce anything but that darned tapping. You decide to give that a try. She may be a bit alarmed by your BIG smile when she looks your way, but you moderate it to a warm friendly loving glance, so rewarding that she begins to look at you more frequently after that. But she keeps tapping her nails!

You can also simply give her clear information: "Please stop doing that." And you do, and she does. She just stops, maybe even says, "Sorry...I didn't realize."

Truth is, at some time or other, all social beings are lost in themselves, unaware that what they are doing may be affecting others. (I could make a wicked strong case here for dogs being the most frequent recipients of clueless human behavior but I digress.)

A dog squeaking a ball endlessly is a good example - they're loving it, though it might be making you crazy, something that wouldn't even dawn on them as they are having fun with their toy. Your opinion or approval isn't even on their radar. One of the funniest things I ever saw involved a young dog who was happily squeaking his favorite ball, which was particularly loud and thus quite annoying to us humans after a while. After about 10 minutes, my husband and I looked at each in exasperation. I said, "I'll give him two more minutes, then I'm going to trade him for a quiet toy."

Just then, my oldest female got up, walked over to the youngster, gently took the ball from his mouth, stuffed it firmly in his ear, squeaked it about 5 times very hard and loudly, then dropped it and walked away. The youngster looked at her, looked at the squeaky ball, and without any further input from anyone, went and got a quiet stuffed toy to play with. A brilliant moment of a dog telling another, "Please stop doing that!" Amused us to see that we weren't the only ones who were being irritated!

Sometimes, when I'm working a dog at a seminar, I just look at the dog who's doing x (an unwanted behavior) and say, "Don't." In a quiet, firm tone. Sum total of what I have to say. No corrections, no threats, just that clear statement that is echoed in my body language. And often the dog simply stops doing X. With the cessation of the unwanted behavior, I can begin to ask for and positively reinforce more desirable behaviors. Trainers in the audience inevitably ask, "But what did you do?" My answer is I just let the dog know that X wasn't acceptable. I gave him some "NO" information. The dog's response indicates he gets the message, without being afraid, without shutting down.

The word NO never hurt or scared a dog. You can prove this to your own satisfaction. Write the word NO on a piece of paper. Show it to your dog. I tried this with my 11 dogs. 3 thought this was a new game, one tried to eat the paper, and 7 others politely touched the paper with their nose and then wagged their tails at me. I could see they were thinking that all too familiar thought, "The poor wee thing, she's just not quite right in the head." (Why my German Shepherds have Scottish accents is beyond me, but they do.)

People hurt and scare dogs. Clear, coherent information doesn't hurt or scare a dog. Watch how dogs tell each other NO without messing up their relationships. It can be done. But it requires a real desire to remain in harmony, the dogs' secret to how they do what they do with each other and with us

By choosing to use this article you agree to our article usage terms

"Just Say No !??!?" by Suzanne Clothier

Related Products