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?