Teaching ‘No!’

In my home three new kittens crept into our lives just a few weeks ago. I lost my beautiful black hunting cat Lea not long ago and the local rats moved in with a vengeance to terrorise my poor chickens to the point of paralysis. There were only supposed to be two new kittens, but the third in the litter would have been all alone without his litter mates so I slipped him into the carrier with the others. They were so small it made hardly any difference at the time.

Now, 8 weeks later, rather than a plague of rats in my garden I have a plague of large kittens in my house. They love nothing better than to pile onto my lap in a tangled web of multi coloured legs and tails and then to leap onto the unsteady piles of paper on my desk, the ones I’ve been meaning to file for a while now. As the piles crash to the floor they spring onto the window sill and clear a pathway through the now chipped and broken ornaments which I wearily put back up every day.

I couldn’t stand it anymore this morning and yelled at them as they flew out of the door in a cloud of fluttering paper and crashing china. At the sound of my voice, the dogs, who normally calmly ignore the cats’ antics, shot out from under my desk and headed for the hallway where they lay with their backs to my office door looking very uncomfortable.

It started me thinking.  If a dog will react that strongly to me raising my voice to a cat, it’s really no surprise that trying to train a dog using negative commands is doomed to failure.

There are sadly, many trainers who still believe that a firm voice and correction is the only way to teach a dog. In my experience the vast majority of dogs are very stressed by this kind of approach to the point where they really can’t listen, let alone learn. Dogs need to be told what they are doing right, not what they are doing wrong.

I visit many frustrated dog owners who are at their wits’ end because their dog pays no attention to them whatsoever as they repeatedly shout ‘No! Most owners will swear that their dogs understand the meaning of the word but refuse to obey. However most of these dogs have no clue what the word means. The negative tone of voice might make them slink away or they may even think their owner is barking and join in.

So, when a puppy is young and learning fast it is always wise to ignore any mistakes and to concentrate on praising and reinforcing success. There comes a time though, as your dog realises that the world doesn’t end if he refuses to sit down when the cat runs by, that most dogs will decide to make their own decisions every now and then. Good things happen when I obey but nothing bad happens if I don’t and I might get to catch that bird after all. This is when owners need to reinforce the commands they’ve been teaching and some kind of sanction becomes necessary. If a dog understands that No means stop what you’re doing and I’ll congratulate you, then it becomes a powerful tool.

Some trainers assert that dogs cannot be taught the meaning of No anyway, so it is not worth attempting to use it. So what do they do instead? They find different ways of communicating the same thing – Leave It, Drop the cat, Back, Stop. All these commands, uttered in a similar tone of voice, essentially mean ‘Stop what you are doing now’. So if we can teach a dog to stop what it is doing with the command ‘No’, preferably given in a deep, firm but calm tone of voice then congratulate it once it succeeds then surely we’ve found a way to communicate what is needed in a positive way. Most owners don’t consider that teaching No is necessary although they go to lengths to teach other commands.

If it is taught on its own in a calm, firm and clear way then owners won’t have to shout and their dogs will not close their ears and turn away.