No "no vocabulary" for your dog

N.H. Sunday News - Dog Tracks Column - 5/20/12
By: Gail T. Fisher

I once overheard a neighbor training her new puppy in their yard. Apparently, the puppy did what puppies do, using his mouth to explore—including his owner’s hand. I heard her say, “No biting ... no biting ... no biting!” followed by, “Good, no biting.” I wanted to run outside and give her either a copy of my book, THE THINKING DOG, or a free training lesson. This scenario illustrates two techniques many dog owners employ, both of which are unhelpful. The first is using “no” with a verb (“no biting”), and the second is repeating the instruction with praise, as in “Good, no biting.”

Many owners and even some dog trainers believe that it’s important to repeat the cue that a dog has just performed along with praise, such as “Good sit,” “Good down,” “Good stay.” This presumes two things about a dog’s understanding. First, that the dog understands relative merit—good versus lousy. They don’t. But second, and more importantly, repeating a cue after the dog has already performed that action muddies and confuses the instruction to the dog.

Think of a cue (or command) as a “trigger for action.” What the cue means to the dog is, “if you perform the action that you’ve learned to associate with this word, you may get praise or a treat.” So the cue “sit” triggers the dog to put his butt on the floor; “down” cues him to lie down, etc.

The question is, does the dog view “sit” as an action—the action of putting your butt on the floor—or as a position, that is, being in a sit. I believe that from the dog’s perspective, a cue is a call for action: engage the muscles that move your body into the position of sitting on the floor. In that case, “Sit ... good sit” is a call for repeating the action—“Sit” ... praise ... “sit again.” In fact, when praised this way, I’ve seen many dogs stand up and sit again.

Next, looking at my former neighbor’s use of “no” with “biting.” In order for a puppy or dog to respond to a cue such as “No biting” the puppy has to know what “biting” means in the first place. After all, how can the puppy stop doing something if he doesn’t know what that something is? If I said to you, “Stop (gibberish word)” would you stop? Of course not. You need to understand what the gibberish refers to in order to stop doing it. Gibberish makes as much sense to you as “no biting” does to a puppy. Saying “no (biting, barking, jumping, digging)” etc., means nothing to the dog unless the dog has learned what “bark,” “bite,” “jump” or “dig” means. In other words, to teach your dog “no bite,” you first need to teach him what “bite” means. Even if the dog understands that “no” means “refrain from a behavior,” the behavior is gibberish to the dog.

Far more useful is teaching the dog an incompatible behavior—to sit calmly when company comes so he’s not jumping up; to hold a toy in his mouth so he can’t bite, and the like. I wanted to explain to my neighbor to give up the “no” vocabulary, and train the dog to respond positively to cues for good behavior.

Copyright © Gail T. Fisher, 2012. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint this article or suggestions for future topics, please contact us.