Just Say No to Saying “NO!”

No No

It’s almost a reflex. There goes Rover, in hot pursuit of the cat, or gnawing on the sofa, or slurping at your dinner plate, or barking threats at squirrels…and we just need it to STOP, so we shout “NO!”

Then one of several things happens: The behavior pauses for a split second, then resumes. Or, if you have a “soft” dog whose feelings are easily bruised, he’ll hang his head and beg for forgiveness–knowing you’re displeased but not necessarily knowing why. An independent and tenacious dog like mine will assume you’re talking to someone else and keep right on going.

sachy winsomeWhat does “NO” mean to our dogs? Do they think, uh-oh, she’s mad about something…better appease her with my pleading Bambi eyes? Maybe they guess you don’t want them doing this behavior in front of you, so they should do it when you’re not around? Possibly, they know you mean “Knock it off!!” but they don’t know of another outlet for their energy or another behavior to fulfill the function of the annoying one.

To us, “NO!” means “Stop doing that right now AND stop doing it forever!” But “NO” isn’t a trained cue, like “sit” or “down,” that relays information about what to do. It’s a loud, startling noise. It’s a release of tension that brings brief relief to the yeller. But it almost never teaches our dog to cut it out for good.

And if I shout my dog’s name, too–as in “HUCKLEBERRY, NO!”–that’s a double whammy of counterproductive training. For one thing, the unwanted behavior is reinforcing (rewarding) to Huckleberry; otherwise she wouldn’t do it. And since “NO!” doesn’t prevent her from doing it in the future, this behavior just gets stronger with every repetition. Then there’s the added problem that I’ve taken Huckleberry’s name in vain.

We know we’re always supposed to say our dogs’ names with sing-song-y enthusiasm, so they associate their name with joy and joyful things. When I bellow at Huckleberry with rancor in my voice, I tarnish the luster of her name a little, sully it a bit with unpleasant associations. Too much of that, and she may decide the sound of her name is something to tune out rather than welcome.

So…if we want a permanent solution to a problem behavior, rather than a fleeting cessation of our dogs’ annoying shenanigans, we need a better way.

Photo by Bryce Bradford. Creative Commons license.https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/legalcode
Photo by Bryce Bradford. Creative Commons license.

What if, every time you’re ready to scold with a “NO!”, you cheerfully call his name instead? If you’ve trained him to react instantly and eagerly to the sound of his name, he’ll wonder what you want and tune in excitedly to find out. Once you’ve got his attention, redirect him to something else: “ Rover …instead of rooting around in the trash can, why don’t you come play tug with me, or chase your ball down the stairs?”

The simplest, most rudimentary remedy is “interrupt and redirect.” But instead of interrupting with a harsh “NO!” you interrupt with your dog’s favorite word–his own name–and then engage him in something even better than trash, or at least just as fun. (And then put the trash can out of his reach.)

Now let’s take it to the next level: Identify your dog’s most vexing behaviors, and consider what you want him to do instead. Then practice, practice, practice and reinforce, reinforce, reinforce with high value treats (or whatever he loves–toys, belly rubs, etc.) until it becomes more rewarding to do the alternative behavior than the original, exasperating (to you) behavior.

photo by ktk17028. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/legalcode
Photo by ktk17028, Creative Commons license

Do you hate it when your dog jumps up on people? Saying “NO!” won’t tell him what to do instead of jumping. Teach him a rock solid “sit,” and sitting will (with plenty of practice and rewards) replace jumping. Is your puppy scarring you with his savage little shark teeth? Train him to bring you a toy. Sick and tired of your dog begging at the table? Teach him to go to his bed and stay there, and let him lick the plates when you’re done.

It’ll take time, effort, patience, and a whole mess of hot dogs. Start easy, do short sessions, and make things harder one baby step at a time. Be understanding. We’re asking our dog to quit a habit that’s almost certainly a natural canine behavior, just because we don’t like it. That demands a lot of self-control. Did you ever try to quit smoking, go on a diet, control your temper, or stop yourself from buying something you couldn’t afford? Then you can sort of empathize.

Here are a couple personal examples, starting with my cat Cato, an incorrigible door dasher. He foiled every attempt to block him. Finally I realized he needed an alternative behavior. What did I want him to do instead of bolting out the door? How about go to the bottom of the stairs of our split foyer entrance. Now when I go to the door, Cato runs down the stairs and waits. I toss him a palmful of kibbles and he scrabbles around searching for them. This buys me plenty of time to slip out.

huck and bunHere’s another. In the past, Huckleberry could hardly resist my rabbits. If she got into their pen, she’d chase them. If they took cover in one of their many Amazon boxes, she’d get frustrated and bark like mad. Scary for them, super irritating for me.

What should she do instead? Lie down quietly. I trained her to settle on a mat outside the pen, and then inside the pen but still at a good distance from the rabbits, and then gradually decreased the distance until she could be right next to them and still stay put on her mat.

I need to keep her in practice, because the biological imperative to chase bunnies is so nearly irresistible. When I slack off, the chasing and barking resume. Most of the time I just keep Huckleberry out, so it’s not an issue. When we’ve been working on this a lot, she’ll sometimes lie down right outside the pen (or inside, if the gate’s been left ajar) and wait for me to notice what an angel she is.

What does your dog do that drives you crazy? What’s your strategy for curtailing those unwanted behaviors? What alternative behaviors have you trained your dog to do? Let me know what solutions you’ve come up with.

"Stop saying NO to your dog!"  from pexels.com
“Stop saying NO to your dog!”
from pexels.com



About Karen Baragona

I'm a dog trainer (CPDT-KA) with a soft spot for shelter and rescue dogs who are a little rough around the edges. My own rescue dog Huckleberry, an exuberant hound mix, gave me a run for my money with her reactivity, resource guarding, squirrel chasing, fear of car rides, and unapologetic boisterousness. But she made me a better, more empathetic trainer. As a group class training instructor, private in-home trainer, and animal shelter behavior counselor, I've worked with hundreds of dogs and their people to help them understand and learn from each other. I have a special interest in interactions between dogs and kids, and dogs and other household pets. I also have a master's degree in environmental science and in a past life worked in international wildlife conservation for 15 years.


  1. Excellent blog! Covers a lot of good points – human interpretations vs dog interpretations, unwanted behavior is reinforcing, poisoning their name, a lot of practice in more appropriate replacement behavior, and good examples. I only have one suggestion, the words ‘hard-headed’. As positive trainers, we try so hard to convince our clients that ‘stubborn’ is not a true to form behavior in dogs. A more accurate description is that they are breeds that were designed to be independent thinkers.

    1. Amy, thanks so much for pointing this out. Dr. Susan Friedman would be very disappointed in me for LABELING! You’re exactly right, “hard-headed” isn’t a behavior, and when we describe behavior, we’re describing what a dog DOES, not what a dog IS. So truthfully, if Huckleberry isn’t responding the way I want her to, the onus is on me to figure out how to change that, rather than labeling her as a dog who doesn’t cooperate!

  2. Good advice! I teach pet dog training classes and ask my students to remove “no” from their vocabulary and replace it with an instruction. Giving the dog information as to what they should do instead of what they are doing is more effective. If they are counter surfing tell them to sit. Reward for longer and longer sits. They are more likely to sit by the counter instead of jumping up if sitting is more rewarding over time.

  3. Love the article. I am not one to have my clients use NO. I always ask– What does NO mean. I get all kinds of explanations– my next question is Does your dog know what NO means? They many times will say –well he should. My next question is How would he know? Did you teach him that? My personal opinion is NO is used so generically that it is not specific enough to keep the dog out of hot water with the owner. I have had many clients once they realize the dog is only going to know — language wise– what they have taught them it becomes really real to them.

    Again that for the article.

  4. I teach my clients that using a firm No when their dog is jumping or nipping relentlessly is fine as long as they use that chance to redirect the dog to appropriate behavior. Or a stern Off. The word isn’t really important except that it’s easy to let clients use No or Off as those words come so naturally to us humans when we want to stop bad behavior. The tone is what interrupts the naughtiness and gives you an opportunity to redirect or ask for good behavior. Once training has progressed, a solid drop it can be used or a recall to get the pup away from what they shouldn’t be doing. I like your suggestion, but I think realistically it’s going to be hard to ask a client to say their dog’s name in a sing- songy voice when their dog is eating a beloved possession. Even I can’t do that.

    1. It’s still positive punishment though and works by causing a startle response that can cause anxiety.
      Why not use the same energy to distract them at the time instead of resorting to firm tones? We have to train ourselves to stop saying no, its a habit, that’s all.
      Wouldn’t a behaviour plan help to address immediate problems?

      1. I think it’s so hard for clients to understand/believe that a dog does a behavior on cue because of the reinforcement history, not because of how stern our voice is. When I was teaching group classes, we coached clients to give their cues in a friendly, encouraging tone rather than a “you’d better listen or else!” voice–especially when the cue was Drop It or Leave It. It often took a while for them to see for themselves that, if a behavior is well proofed and has a solid reinforcement history, their dog will do it on cue even if you do sing it! No need to growl at them 🙂

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