Here’s an interesting question: Should you teach a dog the concept of “no, don’t do that?” If so, how would you teach it? This came up during a discussion generated by an earlier post, “Asking versus Telling.” It was mentioned that very few classes teach the concept of “Don’t do that,” but lots of owners want to convey that information.
I get why it’s not taught much, for a variety of reasons. First off, teaching a negative is tricky. (“Don’t think about red!”) In addition, the word “no” has been so inappropriately and, often ineffectually, used. I grew up often hearing “NO!” spoken (or yelled) to my family dog, Fudge, a multi-mix of a sweetheart, who none-the-less, thought the garbage was her god-given right.
The primary problem with “No” it is often used without any training of its meaning. My parents, dog lovers to the core, just said “no” louder and louder, eventually with more and more anger, until the dog finally stopped, or they didn’t know what else to do except slap her butt with a rolled-up newspaper. (Standard advice in the 1950’s.)
I may be getting into the weeds of acoustic theory here, but it seems to me that there’s also something about the sound of the word “No” that makes it especially problematic. Saying the word “No!” somehow easily leads to “Nooooooo” that leads to “NOOOOOOOO!,” which then leads to it being said louder and lower, and then louder and louder, until it becomes plain old yelling.
So, should we even try to train something that means “Don’t do that?” We all, at least in this village, strive to use positive reinforcement as much as possible. At the same time, life experience, and many of the comments I’ve read over the years, make it clear that it is hard to live with a dog without some way of communicating, “I don’t want you to do that,” or “Uh, you are out of line, bud.” After all, dogs do it to each other all the time, with a glare, a stiff posture, or a growl. In addition, we are human. We are social primates who sometimes need to communicate something akin to “No shirts, no shoes, no service.” So, how can we do this in the most positive way possible?
I thought it would be interesting to have a discussion about this issue. Here are some of my thoughts, but know that I see myself as just getting our conversation started:
Circling back to “it’s easier to teach a positive than a negative,” as well as the ever-important question, “what DO you want your dog to do?,” one of my go-to’s is LEAVE IT. If taught the way most positive-forward trainers do, Leave It means “turn away from that and look at me.” It doesn’t literally mean “don’t do that,” but it accomplishes the same thing. It’s easy to teach (one fist holding okay food, one holding great food; hold out the bland stuff, say Leave It and the micro second the dogs turns their head, reinforce with the better food from the other hand, etc, etc.) Kikopup has a great video on how to teach Leave it on Youtube.
There are, of course, other cues you can give that distract your dog from doing something you don’t want them to. For example, “Wrong,” is sometimes used when dogs are being taught labels for an action. Say you are teaching words for objects, and present a stuffed bunny and a ball. You say “bunny!” and the dog goes to the ball. Some trainers stay silent if this happens, and just withdraw the object. Others, on the other hand, would say “Wrong” here, and use it to mean “I’m conveying information to you that you’ve made the wrong choice, as a way of helping you out.” Theoretically at least, one could use this in other contexts. I don’t use Wrong myself, but would love to hear from those of you who do. Do you use it in other situations?
The common cues I can think of that most directly mean “don’t do that” are words like “Uh-uh” and “Hey,” ideally, said in a quiet, low voice. With some super-responsive dogs, all that is required is the word being said in an atypically low voice. Using pitch to convey information is a well-understood aspect of animal communication, first spelled out by ethologist Eugene Morton who wrote about the Motivational-Structural Rules that correlate low and “noisy” sounds (think growling) with aggression or authority, and high, “thin” sounds with appeasement or fear.
The effect of pitch on dogs can be astounding. If Skip is looking at the sheep and I say “that’ll do” in a normal voice he’ll sometimes not even flick an ear in my direction. If I say the exact same thing in a lower pitch (sometimes even quieter, not louder), he’ll wheel around and leave the sheep. So when I use “Hey,” which means “What you are doing is wrong”–say that Skip is flanking when I asked him to Walk Up–I always say Hey in a lower voice than I normally use. If he continues I will say it louder and lower, but then either call him back to me (taking away the sheep, the reinforcement), or tell him to Lie Down (another way of “taking away the sheep”).
Using pitch to convey meaning is all well and good, but is there also a way to specifically teach, in a way that is the least aversive possible, that Hey or Uh-uh means “don’t do that?” And should we? For decades I’ve stressed, “teach your dog what you DO want her to do, don’t focus so much on what you DON’T.” And yet… as mentioned earlier, read the comments from the “Ask versus Tell” post a few weeks ago. Yet soooooo many of us do indeed find ourselves communicating something that means “uh, what you are doing doesn’t fly here,” from saying their name in a low, drawn-out voice (raise your hand for hearing this yesterday, Maggie), to saying “Uh uh,” or “Nope,” or “Wrong.”
Here’s a case study: When Skip came, as a dog who had peed and pooped in his “house” for three years, I had to respond to the occasional times he lifted his leg in the house. Besides a doggy diaper and relentless positive reinforcement for going outside, I had to communicate to him that he must never do that inside the house, and eventually, inside any building. Obviously, “Leave it” wasn’t going to work here. I also had to communicate it to him at the speed of light (boy does that urine comes out fast!), and in a way that didn’t frighten him or compromise our relationship. On reflection, I actually did say just plain old “no,” the first time or two, instead of any of the cues I’ve been using for years. Eighteen years of conditioning with my parents apparently kept that stuck in my brain for use in times of crisis. However, what I also did, this time based on my years of experience as a trainer and behaviorist, was to say it fast, low-pitched, and clipped. There was no anger in it, just a quick, abrupt sound that got his attention, said in an especially low voice. I would follow it up with looking at him in horror and saying “Oooooh, we don’t do that here.” Again, in a low, quiet voice. Because Skip is super sensitive to emotions, he got the message incredibly fast.
What about you? I’m fascinated to hear what you have to say. Do you teach or use a cue that means “We don’t do that here?” Have you changed what you say over the years? use Leave It or Wrong? I can’t wait to read what you have to say.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: Beautiful weather lately! Haven’t said that in a while. The clouds were gorgeous Sunday morning when we took a walk at Walking Iron Park. It’s perfect for us now, regrettably, because dogs are only allowed on leash there, and Maggie is now restricted to leash walks after straining her Achilles.
This is what Maggie thinks of being restricted to a leash for the last four days (and being helped up and off the couch):
Sadly, she doesn’t seem to be enjoying our new couch covers, which we think are ADORABLE.
Do NOT, on pain of nothing but kitty litter to eat for the rest of your life, show the next two photos to Maggie. While Maggie chilled out in her crate, Skip fell in love with Bliss, the new(ish) Border Collie of UW’s kick ass Physical Therapist, Courtney Arnoldy and husband Zach. Looks like Bliss felt the same way. (Friend Hixie calls Skip’s posture the “man dance.” Best title ever.) Look at Skip’s ruff! His ears and tail. This guy was all in, you could practically hear the red sports car gunning its engine outside the bar.
After series of rom-com greetings, they played “race horse” around and around the pen. I switched my phone to video to capture it, and got this:
This is what I call The McConnell Method, in which you can stop any behavior by getting out a recording device. I’ll bet you’ve experienced it yourself?
That’s it for this week, I look forward to our conversation about teaching something akin to “We don’t do that here,” in the most positive way possible. Join in!