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Friday, April 15, 2016

But, How Do I Tell Him No?

One question I hear often from people who live with a deaf or blind/deaf dog, is "But, how do I tell him no when he can't hear me?" They assume that if the dog could just hear them say no, it would stop doing those behaviors that they don't like.

The word no does not hold any magic power to stop behavior.  It is not a magic wand that we can wave to instantly create a world to our liking.  And, dogs are not born knowing what the word no means.

What does the word no mean anyway?  Does it have a single, clear meaning?  Or, do we use it to convey a wide degree of emotion?

No, don't do that right now.  No, don't do that ever.  No, I don't want to play with you now.  No, how could you?  No, don't chew on that. No, don't jump on me in my good clothes.  No, get off the furniture. No, don't knock over the children. No, you can't have that.  No, there's no more dinner.  No, I won't buy you that.  No, I don't like that.  No walk today.

To a dog, each of those is a very different situation.  How is he supposed to know that the word no means all of them and more?  Most of the time, the dog doesn't understand what he did to upset you, he only knows that you are often upset and when you get upset, you yell this strange word no at him.

Think about when people have told you no.  How do you feel?  Deflated? Disappointed? Embarrassed? Wanting to avoid that person? Angry? Frustrated? Confused? Apprehensive?  If this small word can bring about those types of feelings and confusion, why is it a word we would want to use with our dogs?  Do we want our dogs to feel those things?  Do we want our dogs to be stressed and confused?

Dogs have natural behaviors, just like humans do.  They have a need and a desire to perform those behaviors, even if those behaviors are ones we would rather they didn't do.  Dogs have no reason to believe that their natural behaviors would be unwelcome to us.  They use those behaviors to interact with their world and to communicate to others around them.  To them, each behavior has a meaning and an importance. 

When we try to stop behaviors we don't like, we end up increasing our dog's stress levels as they try to suppress certain behaviors to please us, but they don't have an outlet for the impulses they still have to do those behaviors.  Often people try to stop many behaviors all at once and they end up telling the dog no a lot!  Everything the puppy tries to do is met with a no and an unhappy person.  

Frustration results, not only on the part of the person, but especially on the part of the puppy.  Frustrated puppies naturally try to use their behaviors to dissipate that stress - by running, chewing, digging, barking, mouthing, etc.  Hmmm ... more behaviors that lead to no.  A not-so-pretty cycle begins to ensue.

Dogs that are stressed, frustrated and confused are physiologically unable to focus on learning, so it is not an ideal time to try to teach them something new.  The more the dog hears no and stays in this state, the less you will be able to teach him.  

Let's change our perspective.  Instead of pointing out to our dogs, in our unclear human way, all the things we don't want them to do, let's focus on teaching our dogs in a kind and clear manner, what we do want them to do.  By creating clear expectations of what we do want in each situation, our dog will feel more relaxed and secure.  A relaxed dog is more likely to show behaviors that humans like!  Behaviors like being quiet, lying down, moving calmly, finding his own toys to chew on, etc.  

When dogs have a clear understanding of what we expect, they can make choices about their behaviors. The behaviors the dog was showing before out of stress, frustration, and confusion, will no longer be relevant and will be replaced by the new behaviors of a relaxed and secure dog.  Dogs want to do what will bring them pleasant feelings.  Feeling relaxed and secure are pleasant feelings.  

When we see more behaviors that we like, we will have more reasons to let our dogs know how much we appreciate these behaviors.  Having a happy, relaxed human who reinforces their choices is a pleasant feeling that the dog will try to attain.  This creates a much prettier cycle!  And a win-win for us and our dogs!

There will certainly be times when we need to stop our dogs from doing behaviors that are unsafe or inappropriate. But yelling no will very seldom solve the problem at hand.  It is much quicker to go to the dog and interrupt the behavior than to stand there helplessly yelling no over and over again.  If it is a behavior that is likely to happen again, decide what you want your dog to do instead in that situation and take the time to teach it.  It will make your life so much easier in the long run, and both you and your dog will be much happier.   

So, my answer for those people who want to know how to tell their dog no?  Tell your dog yes instead!

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