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Why Can’t I Just Say “No!”?

Updated: May 29, 2023

These six-month-old pups skid to a stop and mand in front of my husband. They have never heard the word "no."

Well, you can, of course you can, but doing so comes at a cost to the dog and his relationship with you, even if you do it “nicely.”

The question in the title of this blog comes up VERY often as I talk with owners of LGDs because I ask that they not tell their pups/dogs “No.” Rather, I ask that they interrupt the behavior they don’t appreciate and redirect it to a behavior that they do like. In both cases, the dogs stop the undesired behavior, but how the two methods of training feel to the dog is profoundly different.

I am a continuing student of behavioral science, both through formal education and practical experience with my dogs. Most of my formal education has come from the Karen Pryor Academy.

Karen Pryor is both a scientist and a trainer; she writes:

“What an unpleasant event will do, predictably, is to shift the dog’s emotional state from one of enthusiastic interest to a condition of avoidance and caution.

That state of anxiety vastly slows down the acquisition of new information; the animal is now only interested in getting away from the situation. That is not a suitable emotional state for continuing training.”

When I read that second paragraph a vision of the “independent” LGD popped into my head…

Dogs learn to cope with imperfect training, and imperfect events in life for that matter, but the behaviors they come up with in coping may cause an owner great frustration, such as a dog that learns not to come when called.

Dogs trained with correction-based methods – and unfortunately, that means most dogs – often worry when training happens and when being given commands. They work to avoid the situation because they know if they fail to give the correct response, something unpleasant will happen.

Dogs trained with positive reinforcement methods become excited and happy when given cues because those cues represent an opportunity for reinforcement that wasn’t there a minute ago. This is true because the dog knows he cannot fail; this knowledge is based on his learned training history. If he responds incorrectly to the cue, he is redirected as an emotional re-set and then is given the opportunity to earn the reinforcement again. There is very little stress for the dog in this situation.

If you use correction-based training on a dog raised and trained with positive reinforcement-based training, you will create a dog who becomes fearful and insecure. He may become fearful in his environment and certainly insecure around the person who, from his perspective, became untrustworthy. He will become insecure; he may also become aggressive. He is very likely to avoid the person who “corrected” him. These are learned coping skills for a situation that makes no sense to the dog.

Most owners have correction-based training as the methodology they have a history with and are most comfortable with. Usually, they have also come to me, in part because they are looking for an improved training relationship with their dogs. So, they are open to new ideas, but change is often uncomfortable, indeed sometimes truly frustrating!

I think of my training skills as being tools in my toolbox. When I was learning about positive reinforcement training I felt like some of my tools were being taken away, and I thought boy, you’d better replace them with something else because I still need to be able to ask for compliance from my dogs. In the early days, it often felt like a clumsy and sometimes scary journey as I transitioned between these two methods of training.

There are so many training books out there, so many trainers, and so many opinions about training that it can feel overwhelming even to know where to start. What I would like you to have as a takeaway from this blog is this: “Go to the science!” Being sure you have that answer can be challenging, too, but it does narrow the field.

Training based on behavior science, rather than fads or opinions, makes sense to dogs.

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