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“No” Defense


January 20, 2015 by Julia

A little while back, an article written by Nicole Wilde was making the rounds on Facebook: What is “No!” Really Telling Your Dog? People would post it along with some short comment, often with some implicit “tsking” at people who use No.

I don’t entirely disagree with that article. “No” is not specific information and telling a dog what you want is certainly the goal. But I do believe that No can be a valuable tool in training.

I had this thought as soon as I saw the article, but I doubted myself. Nicole Wilde is a well-known trainer, I’m “just” a dog owner and blogger. Maybe I was wrong to use it and I should reconsider. Then I was re-reading The Other End of the Leash by Patricia McConnell (required reading for any dog lover) and she recounted an incident where she used a yelled “No!” to interrupt her dog before calling the dog to come. I read that and had an aha moment. Not only could I put words to my reasoning, I remembered a story to illustrate it.

Here is my view. The value in No isn’t as instructional reprimand. It is an interrupter or “no reward marker.” I sometimes use “uh uh” or “ut oh” though I find “no” works best in situations like McConnell’s where distance makes yelling necessary. (You can yell ‘ut uh’?)

You need to follow No with something specific, but it can act as a starting point.

One of the last training sessions I ever had with my first girl, Xena, shows the value of No. Not only did it give her information, her reaction showed me that we understood each other. I was teaching Xena the scent article exercise in obedience – the dog picks up an article with your scent from a group of articles that you have not scented. She had been struggling and shutting down, treating the exercise as retrieve rather than scenting. I’d figured out the problem – there were only two articles down, so she’d focus on the first one she saw and bring it back. I had added in 2 more articles so that there was a group and it would be difficult to fixate on a single one. She’d been doing well with the change but on one particular round she grabbed the wrong article and started coming back to me. I told her – quietly, kindly, but firmly – “No.” And she stopped and looked at me. I directed her to go sniff. She spit out the wrong article, returned to the group, and returned with the correct one. I was so happy with her, I nearly cried.

Ok, you say, but she took the right article when you told her to go sniff. Yes, I followed it up with instructional information. But that “No” caught her at the moment of her error and her reaction – to stop and look for information, rather than shutting down – gave me the chance to give her the right answer. If I’d let her come to me with the wrong one and then told her to go back, she might have devolved back into retrieving, not understanding why I was telling her to go again.

This video was a training session after that one and truly was one of our last sessions. It was taken on February 12, 2012 – we lost her on February 16. Xena was a fairly quiet and reserved girl, but you can see that she knew the job and she was pleased when she made the right choice. I do not think we would have made it to that point together if it hadn’t been for the value of No.

I will continue to use No as part of my training. It is one shade of black that helps my dogs see the “white” answer. I will do my best to be judicious with its use, so that it remains valuable.

What about you? Do you use No or some other no reward marker? Do you see the value in No?


  1. Jana Rade says:

    I believe that like with any other verbal communication, “No” means whatever you teach your dog it means. Because they don’t come with “built-in” English dictionary, by itself, no doesn’t mean anything. They might discern the tone of voice and figure it out that way. Otherwise, you could use the same word as a command for sit, for example, and it would make no never mind to them.

    Jokingly, there are a lot of stories out there where dogs actually think that “No” is their name …!

    • Beth says:

      I think the word “no”can be helpful both with dogs and toddlers. You don’t want it to be the only instruction, but there are times when a “no” can prevent a serious situation.

      • Julia says:

        Yes, definitely applies in real life (rather than formal obedience) training too. A good “stop them in their tracks to save them from themselves” tool.

    • Julia says:

      I agree that dogs don’t know English but I think some of the warning is because we do speak it and many people would naturally assign its typical ambiguous meaning.

  2. Kama says:

    i love that you’ve read Dr. McConnell! Anyway, I consider myself a positive trainer. BUT, I do train the word “no”. It’s not the word, but how you use it. My “no” is typically used in situations where I need to be loud enough for the dog to hear disappointment in my voice, but after the dog responds, instead of continuing to shame him, I redirect him. Using “no” does not make you an aversive trainer unless it is accompanied by physical correction or used more than your positive training alternatives.

    • Julia says:

      Patricia McConnell and Suzanne Clothier are my two favorite dog authors! I’ve never seen McConnell speak, but Dash was evaluated by Clothier at a seminar years ago (I wrote about it, I think the first mention is “Getting in the Reps” from the blog’s early days, 2012)

  3. MyDogLikes says:

    I agree. No is a great word to use as an interrupter. If I yell it loud it stops the dogs in their tracks and orients their attention to me. Then I give a command for what I WANT them to do.

  4. I agree with you. I believe “no” can be useful as a way to interrupt behavior when it’s followed by further instructions.

  5. I believe that if you have correctly trained your dog using positive reinforcement, then a marker can be valuable. Riley knows the word “no”, it is not a discipline word, just a word she knows to stop the action she is doing and choose a different one. Along with that though, I also use the word “yes” to go a long with it. Then she knows she has it right 🙂

  6. Jen Gabbard says:

    I use no in certain situations for sure, I don’t have a command for everything so when I want my dog to stop what she’s doing I’ll use it to get her attention. I don’t have enough trained words for all situations so to have a fallback word that I can use it’s great. I don’t use it in training specifically but I don’t see the harm in using it. As with so many other things I think it depends on the relationship between owner and dog and whether we’re able to effectively communicate given the words we choose to focus on.

  7. MattieDog says:

    Agree – sometimes the word ‘no’ can be a lifesaver (literally) more often than not due to tone, not just the word.

    Great post – thanks for offering a different view, it helps us all think through our training tools!

  8. Saying “no” is often just a bad habit of mine, but I did have an inadvertent success from saying “nope” cheerfully when Ruby dashed after rabbits (on leash) and then asking her to sit…now she often sits as soon as I say “nope!”

  9. I try not to use “no”, simply because I know I will over use it in moments of frustration and not necessarily follow it up with a good redirect.

    In that situation though, I can understand using it.It’s not a good fit for me, but like anything, when used with some forethought and restraint, as an interrupter and not a command, I can see the value.

  10. I agree that there is a time and a place for the word ‘no’. I had also read that it shouldn’t be used and tried to eliminate it in regard to my dogs. I realized that if I tried to redirect them first, I wouldn’t get a response. My two respond better if I use ‘no’ or ‘ah’ to interrupt their behavior and then redirect.

  11. I think in the way you’re using it, as a marker/attention getter there’s nothing wrong with that. I think it is important to follow up with what you do want but it sounds like you have that mastered too 🙂 Nice post!

    • Julia says:

      I wouldn’t say I have the execution mastered but I do remember that it needs a directive follow up more often than not. 🙂

  12. I have to agree there is a place for the word No in training. Sometimes all you have time to scream is no. And int he moment in a dangerous situation that might be all your dog needs in order to stop whatever they are doing and look at you or stop in their tracks. I do think that the word No is overused but it shouldn’t be completely dismissed as a training tool.

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