Is “No” always a negative?

The word “no” can become an especially powerful tool to communicate with a dog.  As humans we usually don’t want to hear the word “no”.  We’d rather hear the word “yes”.  In dating if we ask someone out and they say no, we might be devastated.  If they say yes, thrilled.  We are used to “no” as it is applied to a question we asked – something we want.  No is often negative.

In our method of dog training we use “no” to indicate to the dog that it’s action is not what we want.  If it lays down in response to the sit command, we correct saying “No”.  Any improper response to a command results in a “No”.  This is negative, but it communicates to the dog that this is not the right behavior.  If used consistently and with physical correction (pop on the collar) if necessary, the dog quickly learns that “No” means stop what it is doing and reevaluate what is being asked of it.

Obedience training is pretty clear cut.  Each command requires a specific action on the dog’s part.  But the word “no” can easily be carried further.  For example, when someone comes to the dogs home and knocks on the door the dog may bark.  This is likely a desired behavior, but if the dog keeps barking too long the word “no” can be used (with physical correction if necessary) to tell the dog that the barking behavior is no longer desired.  In this case the “no” command is used in response to an undesired behavior that is not the result of an obedience command.  It may not work completely the first time, but if applied consistently most dogs will quickly understand.

Carrying this a little further the dog starts learning multiple situations where the word “no” applies to behaviors other than improper response to obedience commands.  As the dog learns more and more applications for “no”, they begin to understand it’s wider application; that it means that it is not the right action right now.  As they learn this they also pick up on the idea that voice inflection indicates the seriousness of the “no”.  Lots of inflection means this is serious, less inflection means not as serious.

Growing up I played with remote control toy cars.  Some of these cars went straight when going forward and turned left when going backward.  So how did you make a right turn?  You made a bunch of left turns until you were going the same direction as if you’d turned right (or backed around 270 degrees).  Not having a the ability to steer the wheels to the right didn’t mean you couldn’t go that direction, it just meant you did it differently.

Dogs can’t talk.  The can’t ask questions (at least verbally).  The also have a very limited ability to understand what humans are saying.  The can’t ask, “Is it okay if I chase that squirrel?” and they are unlikely to understand if told, “Don’t chase any squirrels today!”  So how can they find out what is acceptable and what isn’t?  How do they find out if they are allowed to do something or not?  The answer is “NO”.  Once they understand this word they can try things and see what your response is.  If it is no, try something else.  Pretty soon they have a pretty good idea what they can do and what they can’t.

I have a female German Shepherd.  She has heard “no” a million times.  She understands fairly well.  When I go to take her outside she often goes to a bucket where some of her toys are stored and gets one out.  If I’m not going to play with her right then I may say, “no.”  She will give up on the toy and go outside without it.  The “no” doesn’t mean she did anything wrong.  It just means I don’t what her to take a toy right now.  It also doesn’t mean that getting a toy is never a good idea.  The next time out she will try again.  She understands this.  I use “no” with her in many other instances mostly unrelated to obedience.  I rarely use physical correction with the no.  She understands and wants to please.

I understand why people think of the word “no” as a negative.  And to a dog learning the word “no” it is probably negative at first too.  But once the dog learns the wider use of “no” in communications with their master, it enables the dog to understand the master’s wishes and maybe even ask some questions.  Can I do this?  Is this okay?  You may want to think about what questions your dog is asking you.

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