On Good Behavior LLC

The Meaning of NO!…Using Punishment Correctly

Those of you who have worked with me know that I’m not a big fan of punishment: most things our dogs need to know can be taught without having to yell at them. However, there are times that I too find myself needing to communicate that something is forbidden.

So, how to teach our dogs what NO! means? Some dogs will instinctively respond to a loud NO!, especially coming from a person with a deep voice. Make sure to pitch your voice as low as possible and make sure your intonation is flat rather than rising. Many women say NO! in a way that makes it sound exciting. Instead, try to use the tone of voice you would use with “Knock if Off”. Or you may have better luck using a growly Uhn-uh, or Hey! Experiment to see if there is a deep, growly sound that you can make that gets your dog’s attention.

If your dog doesn’t respond to a verbal NO! by stopping what he is doing, you will need to figure out what does make him stop. Most of the time, this is going to mean that the moment you have said NO!, you are in motion to go interrupt the behavior. Yelling from across the room is not training unless your dog stops in his tracks! So, if your dog is about to jump on the counter or the couch, for example, (about to is when you need to be saying NO!), tell him NO! and then either physically interrupt (use a leash to pull off) or use a louder noise (magazine slapped on countertop) or squirt from a water bottle etc. You need to find something your dog dislikes enough to stop the behavior and yet doesn’t leave him traumatized.

Please note that I only use NO! for behaviors that are forbidden at all times and only for property crimes. I don’t want to punish overly exuberant greetings, for example, and make the dog afraid of people.

It is also only reasonable to use punishment if you can catch the dog every single time he is about to make the mistake. If half the time he gets punished as he is about to get on the sofa and the other half of the time he gets to nap for five minutes before you make him get off, he’ll keep on getting on the sofa.

So here’s a cheat sheet for using punishment correctly:

  1. It must happen every time the behavior is about to happen.
  2. It must be unpleasant enough to stop the behavior, but not so unpleasant as to traumatize the dog.
  3. It must happen with perfect timing so that the dog doesn’t reward himself (nap on the sofa, eat something out of the garbage) before he is punished.
  4. It must diminish the behavior. Often times, what we think is punishment, the dog just finds exciting. Many dogs think yelling, shoving, etc is just rough play. If after a few repetitions the punishment isn’t working to reduce the behavior, re-evaluate your plan.

Now that we’ve looked at punishment, wouldn’t it be more pleasant to manage your dog’s environment (keep the garbage can put away; put the puppy in his crate when you can’t watch him etc) and teach him appropriate behaviors (lie on your bed while I’m cooking, for example) so that he isn’t getting in trouble all the time?

So, yes, I really do use the word NO! But I’m careful to stick to the above rules and I try to use it as little as possible. If I were perfect, I wouldn’t need NO! at all, but I haven’t gotten there yet :). 

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