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  • Sarah Stonehouse

"Can I say no to my dog?"

I wanted to write a bit of an opinion post today about what dog trainers are advising vs what dog owners are hearing. It mostly falls into the category of ethics and expectations of dog training in a reality vs fantasy world. Is the advice we are giving working? Is it suitable to the everyday dog owner and their family? Is it actually beneficial to the dog?


The truth is, in reality, just like everything else, things aren't black and white. Life is a spectrum and dog training is no different. There are extremists in all walks of life and dog training is definitely not the exception.


I firmly support and believe in positive reinforcement training. The majority of dog training should be positive. The relationship with your dog should be solid and built on a foundation of happiness and cheese. I don't really think there is a place in this world for prong or shock collars, though I know some that do. I'm also not a fan of choking a dog into submission. However, just because I don't believe in these things doesn't mean that I also live in a world of fairies and gold dust. If I did, I'd be married to Johnny Depp and have 72 dogs.


We as humans require boundaries, I know I certainly did. There seems to be a belief or at least a misconception that positive reinforcement training must be 100% sugar and rainbows. I personally would love for it to be, but learning theory and reality dictate that not to be the case.


Have you ever heard the phrase "You must never say NO to your dog!"?


This seems to be common advice going around at the moment. For me, as a dog behaviourist and trainer with a sound understanding of behaviour, it makes the world of sense to me why this is being advised. To the average everyday pet owner, it is mind boggling that they can't say no to their dogs. And this is what this post is really about. I'm trying to highlight the need for a more relatable way of giving advice and support to normal people who don't have 72 dogs and read dog training books like they are the new Harry Potter.


What trainers are trying to say is that the word NO does not mean anything to your dog in it's bare form. Simply saying NO to your dog and then doing nothing is essentially pointless. The reason it is being advised is so that owners will focus more on positive training rather than punishment, which is a more outdated way of learning. In short, instead of telling your dog what NOT to do, tell them what to do instead. Don't simply say NO and get angry.


However, this doesn't mean we must let dogs do whatever they want to do whenever they want to do it. This is dangerous advice and in my opinion is contributing to rehomed and abandoned dogs just as much as abuse and punishment is.


I believe in boundaries. I believe that you should feel in control of your dog and that your relationship is just that. A relationship. Not a one way street where you are solely there to make your dog happy. Even if that involves allowing them to bite your arms or stand on your shoulders chewing your hair, because in their opinion, that's the most entertaining thing to do that afternoon.


I have met clients who have previously been told to never ever say NO to their dog and therefore are allowing their dog to run rings around them, eventually becoming exasperated and upset because they daren't be scolded for being 'mean' to their dog. Sometimes people come to me on the brink of rehoming because their dog just won't listen. This doesn't sound like positive reinforcement for the owner to me. So yes, I do believe you should be able to say NO to your dog. Or AH AH. Or any non-reward marker (in dog trainer terms) you want to. You can say BANANA if you want to, but for the sake of this post, we're going to boringly stick with the word NO.


So what does NO mean? (I'm writing it in caps lock to make it stand out, you don't need to shout it!)

NO means whatever happens after.

If you say NO and nothing happens, it means nothing. Pointless.

If you say NO and you smack your dog into next week, it means stop that or I'm going to hurt you again. Effective? Yes. Ethical? NO. (Please do not do this).

If you say NO and remove attention or access to you, it means if you carry on I will go away. Effective? Yes. Ethical? Yes.


Instead, by pandering to our dog's needs and avoiding putting them through even the most miniscule of stressful situations, we are creating creatures that are reactive, intolerant to frustration and potentially aggressive. You can say NO to your dog if you want to, but make sure you are following up the NO with an ethical response, something your dog would rather not do but that doesn't cause them any pain or fear.

Love your dog, not just by giving them cuddles and treats but by teaching them boundaries and frustration tolerance. Other trainers may disagree with me, and that's fine. We are always learning and improving, but I wanted to write this as I am disheartened at the unrealistic advice being given and the subsequent failures from said advice.


As always, if you have any questions, please ask! Civil and polite discussions are welcome.




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