As a trainer, one of the top questions I receive is, “how do I teach my dog the word ‘no?’”
My response is usually, “how well did that work out with your children?” We tell children “no” often, yet they still will sometimes repeat the behavior. Your child speaks a verbal langue and is smarter than your dog. So, how can we expect an animal that does not speak a verbal language to understand something as complex as the word “no?”
Dogs live in a world of safe vs. unsafe. A behavior is either safe to perform or it is unsafe. Imagine you are in the kitchen when your dog sticks his head in the trashcan to go after that pork chop bone he smells. You yell “no, bad dog, get out of there,” often while raising your voice and approaching the dog in a threatening manner. The dog just learned it is unsafe to be in the trashcan while you are near it. You leave the kitchen for a few minutes and when you come back, the trash is everywhere and your dog is happily holding that pork chop bone.
Most people become angry at the dog for “disobeying” them. But, in the dog’s world he did not disobey. You told him not to get in the trash when you were around. When you left the kitchen, you made the trash safe. In the dog’s world, leaving something as tasty as a pork chop behind would mean you didn’t want it anymore. If it had been important you would have taken it with you. If you punish the dog at this point, he will not understand what he did wrong.
If you yell at your dog because he pees in the house, he doesn’t understand you are saying it is wrong to pee in the house. He just understands it is not safe to pee in front of you, so he will learn to be in a different room where you can’t see him because it will be safe to pee when you are not in the same room. And if you try taking him back and showing him a potty accident that already happened, your dog will not understand that you are punishing him for going inside the house. He will learn instead you are scary and he should run from you if you approach him when you are angry. Often dogs respond to our anger by offering submissive gestures such as lowering their heads, tucking their tails, etc. People often read these gestures as “guilt” and assume the dog knows it was wrong. Instead it is the dog’s way of trying to appease you and beg you not to hurt it.
We also get into trouble with our canine companion because we send him mixed signals. For example, if he jumps up on you when you come through the door, it is an attention seeking gesture. If you say “no”, you are giving the dog attention. You spoke to him, you most likely looked at him and you may have touched him when you pushed him away from you. To the dog this was all a win. If you truly do not want him to jump up on you, you have to ignore the dog completely. Don’t look at him or talk to him. Stand still and after several weeks of this new behavior, your dog will learn this game no longer works. When he greets you with four feet on the floor, then give him lots of praise and he will figure out this is the new way to get your attention.
What happens if your dog brings you something he shouldn’t have such as your shoe? If you get up out of your chair and chase him through the house and then try and tug the shoe out of his mouth, you just played the best dog game ever invented: run and chase and tug. Your dog just learned if he is bored and you won’t play with him, he just has to bring something out of the bedroom and you will jump up and play with him.
Instead give your dog a long-lasting chew or a puzzle toy before you sit down so he has something to do while you are relaxing.
Trying to see the world as the dog sees it rather than trying to fit the dog into a human peg will go a long way to helping you have an awesome relationship with your canine companion.