What happens when we use the word 'no?'

Carol asks, “I have a general dog behavior topic that is confusing to me--the right way to use the word ’no’... People often growl the word ‘no’ loudly or forcefully to get a dog to stop doing something (barking at another dog, lunging on leash, trying to eat poop, etc.) Sometimes it works and the dog stops. But it doesn't seem like the best approach.”


Such a great question, and one that many people ask! While it’s certainly true that using the word ‘no’ can stop a behavior in the short term (that dog very well may stop barking or jumping on you in the moment), the long term effect can actually result in an increase in the behavior that we don’t want to see. For example, the dog who is jumping on you is likely doing so in search of attention; while saying ‘no’ may not seem like a positive result to us, the dog is still getting his desired result - attention - and will likely continue to practice the behavior. For a dog who is acting out of fear or frustration (for example, a dog who is barking and lunging on leash), using the word ‘no’ to stop the behavior without helping to alleviate their fear or frustration will often lead to an escalation in behavior, such as growling, air snapping, or biting.


When you find yourself using the word ‘no,’ stop to think about what you would like the dog to do instead. Dogs are much more successful when we tell them what we want them to do rather than what we do not want them to do. Dogs will almost always do what causes them the least amount of stress while producing the desired result. For the dog who is jumping on you, he’s likely doing so because it is the easiest and quickest way to get your attention. If we teach him that another behavior, such as sitting, gets him his desired results faster, we can stop the behavior that we don’t like in exchange for a behavior that we do like. You can find more information on addressing specific common behaviors here.


For that fearful or frustrated dog who is barking and lunging on leash, it’s very important that we work to change his emotional response to whatever is scaring or frustrating him. The barking and lunging is a result of that fear/frustration; when we tell him no or otherwise stop that behavior from happening, we are not teaching him that he should not be fearful/frustrated but rather than he should not express his fear/frustration through that behavior. When we take the barking and lunging away from him, he will almost always eventually escalate to a more intense behavior, such as snapping or biting (this is often what is happening when someone says that dog ‘bit without warning.’). Check out the ladder of aggression below for a common order of behaviors in dogs. We also have some great resources on reactivity, aggression, and changing a dog's conditioned emotional response here.


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