When I’m training my dogs, I think it’s fair to say that I spend most of my time in the positive-reinforcement quadrant of the operant conditioning spectrum. Lucy was my first dog, and when I initially got her, I was less “here is my cogent and systematic training philosophy, which I will strive to implement fairly every day” and more “watch me flail my arms helplessly, in the manner of a Muppet”. That said, I discovered positive reinforcement
“‘No, Nellie, don’t get on the table!’, you say? I’m sorry, that’s not a phrase I understand.”
training with Lucy’s help, and she’s the one who taught me how well it works and how much more fun it was for me than, well, basically anything else. I experimented with the clicker with Lucy, and when I got Nellie, I decided that she would be my first exclusively clicker-trained dog. She’s also the first dog I ever really tried shaping with; it was in the course of learning how cool shaping can be that I decided that I was going to excise the word ‘no’ from my vocabulary when it came to my dogs.
This is not to say that I think that anyone who uses the word ‘no’ is a dog abuser–that opinion may be out there, but I don’t hold it. This is also not to say that I don’t enforce any boundaries with my dogs, because I sure do. But I realized a couple of things about ‘no’ that made me decide to stop using it. First, it is very difficult to teach the absence of something: this is why it’s easier to teach a dog to bark than to teach them to stop barking, because “that thing you are doing needs to not happen anymore” is a pretty abstract concept. I’m not a pro trainer by any means, but the fact that I have a lot of dogs and enjoy training them means that within a certain circle (that circle is called ‘my grandmother’s friends’), I am That Girl Who Knows A Lot About Dogs and am often called in to help with whatever problem Fifi happens to be having. 95% of the time, the problem is that the owner wants Fifi to stop doing something (usually something that Fifi likes doing) and the owner hasn’t thought through what they’d like to have Fifi do instead.
“She just won’t stop barking at strange men!”
“Well, what would you like her to do when she meets strange men?”
“….not bark at them?”
But after we talk for a while, the owner decides that what she really wants is for Fifi to go up and approach strange men in a friendly way. THAT gives us something to work on! If Fifi’s not actually scared of strange men, the first thing I’ll do is teach a hand target (go up and boop the person’s hand with your nose). Then we’ll have a party for all of the owner’s Strange Man Friends: when Fifi approaches them, they drop a treat near her, and after a few rounds of that, they offer their hand for her to boop. After a while, Fifi starts thinking of strange men as exciting treat-dispensing monkeys rather than “Those Scary Things That Must Be Barked At”.
The Hua’s secret code name is ‘Fifi’. Shhh, don’t tell my grandmother.
The effect that the owner wanted–the cessation of the barking–happened, AND we got Fifi to the point where she didn’t want to bark, she wanted to be doing something else instead. The opposite approach–just yelling, “No, Fifi, no barking!” a. would probably have just confused poor Fifi, b. would likely have gotten her even more worked up about strange men, because they cause mom to yell, and c. probably would not have worked consistently: suppressing behaviors is rarely absolute, and often you’ll get some ‘breakthrough’ episodes.
Sorry, the only thing I heard was ‘jump!’
Besides the fact that it’s often confusing for the dog, and besides the fact that saying ‘no’ is a lazy way for the owner to avoid training the behavior they actually want, there’s also the fact that ‘no’–on the occasion that it actually does works to suppress behavior–is a blunt instrument. Sure, you don’t want your dog to jump up on you when you’re wearing your nice work clothes, or to jump over the fence. But there are situations where you DO want your dog to jump: at agility class, say, or when you want them to pose on a big rock so you can take scenic hiking pictures of them. You may not want your dog to alert bark at the mail carrier when she comes to the door, but you might really appreciate your dog barking when there’s somebody sketchy in your front yard (or in my case, when there are giant wild pigs attempting to eat your garden.) Suppressing the behavior completely means that you may not be able to call on it when you want it.
Del Close, Closet Dog Training Guru
The other side of this is a little more philosophical: right when I was beginning to teach Nellie about shaping, I also happened to be reading a lot of books about theatrical improvisation (just for fun: I was on a kick.) The big, kind of uber-rule in improv is that when you’re in a scene, you never say no to anything your partner offers: if they begin with “Well, here we are in France!”, you don’t say, “This isn’t France!” What you say (and this is the kicker) is “yes! and…”: you agree with something that your partner says and then you add onto it so the scene can continue (“Yes, I never thought I’d be in France….with Frankenstein!” [sorry, that is a terrible example of a scene. NEVER DO THAT.]) Tina Fey, by the way, gives a great rundown of “Yes, and…” and its relationship to life in her book Bossypants: it’s reprinted here and is a fun read. Anyway, I had kind of a breakthrough when I was reading all this improv theory and also playing 101 Things To Do With A Box with Nellie: it’s basically kind of a doggie improv game, and I realized when I was playing with her that shaping was really about having a ‘Yes, and…’ relationship with your dog. They throw something out there, you build on it, they build on it,
and at the end of the process, you’ve got a cool behavior. In the same way that it’s easier to teach a dog to do something rather than not to do something, a dog who feels confident trying out new things has a much easier time building the behaviors you’re looking for than a dog whose attempts at trying out new behaviors are constantly shut down.
Of course, there are times when I don’t want my dogs to do something (usually in a specific context), and when that happens, I am a big fan of using Leslie McDevitt’s idea of ‘availability’ training, which is to say that you teach your dog the concept that [x] is not available to them (either at that moment or forever) but [y] is. In practice, this looks like, “My sandwich is not available to you right now because I’m hungry and I want it, but your antler is available to you if you want something to chew on”. This is not to say that the sandwich will never be available–I give my dogs random bits of crust or whatever all the time–but only that it is not available now, and I try to teach my dogs to be polite and accepting about that fact.
So, taking ‘no’ out of my repertoire meant increased clarity for the dogs, made me actually train positive behaviors rather than just trying to suppress negative ones, and helped me create a relationship with my dogs where they are happy and eager to try new stuff out for me. Now I’m going to tell you why I’ve reintroduced the word ‘no’ with my puppy, Widget. TWIST!
I know, I’m as surprised as you are. I have a secret, though: I am not using ‘no’ in the way that people generally tend to use it. Often, when you see ‘no’ employed, it’s being bellowed at some poor hapless dog who is busy doing one of any number of fun things. The human bellows, the dog thinks, “Ugh, whatever, stop yelling” and wanders off to do something else. What I wanted to do was to make ‘no’ a meaningful word for Widget: I wanted it to be something that cued a specific behavior. I wanted it to be a word that was meaningful to her, in the same way that ‘sit’ is meaningful; it’s asking for a concrete behavior, rather than just being deployed as a suppressive catch-all for a million potential behaviors.
Intense? Me? Surely you jest.
“But why reintroduce it at all?”, you might be wondering. “What about ‘Yes, and…’?” Here’s the thing about that: Widget is a puppy, which means that her impulse control and manners are both a work in progress. She also happens to be a very intense puppy who is prone to weird herdy trances when confronted with motion. And she uses her teeth a lot. She’s got good bite inhibition, and we’ve been working hard on cementing the idea that Humans Don’t Like Teeth Near Their Skin, but she’s been mouthy since the day I brought her home and it’s been very hard to unlearn the Teeth As Coping Strategy thing that she apparently developed in her life before me.
Widget also gets out a lot. I take her with me everywhere I possibly can: she comes to work, she comes to every dog-friendly and dog-neutral store, we go to trials and events and classes, and she meets a ton of people, both Dog People and non-Dog People. One thing I’ve always noticed about non-Dog People interacting with dogs is that there’s generally a moment where the person is tentatively trying to figure out if they can ‘steer’: they’ll ask for a sit, and then if the dog barks or something, they’ll default to either a ‘down!’ or a ‘no!’ If the dog sits when asks and eventually stops barking, the person relaxes, because they know they can communicate with the dog. Because Widget is a baby and occasionally does dumb baby stuff (we’re working on it!) and also occasionally attempts to nom the hands of strangers, it quickly became clear to me that people other than me were going to be telling her ‘no’ a lot. And because ‘no’ was something I’d never taught her, Widge was just not clear what people were asking of her; thus a lot of her early encounters involved people backing away because they were worried they couldn’t communicate with her, and that was sad for everyone.
I don’t use ‘no’ much/at all in my own training, but I WANT my dogs to take cues from and communicate with other people; I like people to feel comfortable around them even though they are crazy medium-to-large terriers, I want to know that they’ll work for a friend or for my mom or for a trainer, and I want them to be able to listen to strangers if there’s ever an emergency. And like it or not, one of the ways strangers communicate with unfamiliar dogs is with ‘no!’. Heck, I worked hard to eradicate ‘no’ from my training lingo, and still, when Lucy got out the side gate this morning and decided to take herself for a stroll, as I chased her down the street, I forgot all my useful words–like, for example, ‘here!’–and the thing that came out of my mouth was “Nononononono, c’mere, you monkey, NO!”
So that’s why I decided that with Widget, I was going to turn ‘no’ into a cued behavior. After all, if she’s going to hear it from other people (and from me when I’m flustered), it might as well be a meaningful thing for her. And in the spirit of Fifi the Strange Men Barker, I wanted to make sure that ‘no’ cued a specific behavior that I wanted. The behavior I decided that I wanted was for Widget to stop moving and to give me eye contact: that seemed like it would be appropriate in any situation where somebody is saying ‘no’ to her, since it would halt whatever behavior they saw as objectionable while giving her something else concrete to do.
Note to self: Try this the next time the puppy starts unloading the dishwasher.
I taught it pretty much the same way I taught ‘off’: we started by playing tug with a tennis ball, then I said ‘no!’ (lightly and calmly) and pretty much stopped all motion. She let go of the ball and looked at me, I threw the ball for her. Then I started trying it with other behaviors–when she was just walking around, say–and then started working on it in more distracting situations–for example, when she was wrestling with Nellie. I’m now practicing using it when she jumps on my mom (left to my own devices, I use ‘paws down’, but having two cues that mean the same thing is not a terrible.) Next up, I’m going to try it with lots of different tones of voice, since people are not generally saying ‘no’ in a nice calm voice, though I will make sure to always reward heavily and keep it fun. I have no desire for ‘no’ to ever become a punisher for Widget, and I don’t want to use it to suppress behavior; I don’t want it to mean anything to her other than ‘Hey, here’s a trick I’d like you to do!’
Anyway, that’s the story of how ‘no’ re-entered my vocabulary: through a sneaky back channel that really meant ‘yes’! Hopefully, people will feel less compelled to use it as the puppy matures a little bit and I’ll be able to phase it out, but until then, I am glad to keep it in the toolbox.
The Unsuppressible Sisters.