Lately, as I have watched more and more clients talking to their dogs in classes (and as I have listened to myself talking to my dog), I have been thinking a lot about words I think I should ban from my vocabulary. They are the words I use to attempt to get my dog to stop doing something (like barking, jumping, or leash pulling):
NO, DON’T, STOP, OFF mean nothing to my dog.
And I believe that is the case for most dogs whose owners use those words like I do.
Saying NO is just such a natural thing to do. My dog jumps to greet a house guest. I say, “Ernie, NO. OFF” What does he hear? Just noise. We all know, of course, that dogs do not know the meaning of words. But they can associate the sound of those words with actions. When we teach our dogs to sit with their butt on the floor, for example, then pair that action with SIT, they make the association. Once they have that association, then they will sit with their butt on the floor every time they hear the sound SIT.
The difference in how we use words like NO, DON’T, STOP and so on, is that we don’t pair those sounds with a single specific behavior. Think of how we use the word NO. When the guest arrives, NO might mean “stop jumping.” Ten minutes later, when you’ve put snacks out on the table, NO means “don’t try to climb on the table.” And 10 minutes later when the dog is totally bored with the meaningless noises you and your guests are directing at each other and brings you a ball to play, NO means “stop bothering me; we’re not going to play now”
No matter how smart your dog is, it is not going to get all of those different meanings.
But another reason I want to ban these types of words from my vocabulary is that they have the potential of having the opposite effect of what I want. For example, when Ernie jumps up at me he wants my attention. To him, if I say NO or OFF, I might as well be saying“oh hi, I’m so happy you are jumping on me.” No matter what I say he just knows I’m giving him attention – the exact thing he wanted.
Here’s another example. Ernie is out on our deck, the neighbors let their dogs out into their backyard, Ernie goes ballistic barking. I scream NO, STOP. All he knows (if he even hears me) is that there are loud noises coming from my mouth. Heck, he might think I am joining with him in barking at the dogs next door to go back inside. My words certainly don’t do anything to stop the barking.
So I am working on banning these words from my vocabulary—at least the vocabulary I use with my dog.
It’s not easy. Old habits die hard. But if there is one thing I have finally learned it is that you can’t “just say NO” and expect your dog to stop _______ (fill in the blank…barking, jumping, whining, begging. pulling).