Monday, November 28, 2011

Don't Say "No!"

I recently got a question from a student of mine asking me how I feel about using the word No! to correct dogs. So I dug into the archives (yes, I have archives, tons of them), and found these two stories that, I think, explain my position on No!” pretty well. Just to be clear, though, I sometimes refer to No! as the “N word” of dog training. 

So don't use it! Below, youll find two of my reasons why...

Ahhh, that's more like it...

“Do You Know How Much Energy That Would Take?” 

Mack, a Jack Russell terrier, used to go nuts whenever the phone rang, barking and running around, basically driving his owner crazy.  

Macks owner who was going through a difficult divorce thought the best way to solve the problem was to correct the dog, shouting, “No, Mack!  Quiet!” over and over until he finally stopped.  Stopped, that is, until the next time the phone rang. (Mack was no dummy; hed picked up on what was going on his owners life and knew that when the phone rang it usually meant that she was about to go into a deep funk, and would be talking on the phone for hours, either with her attorney, her friends, or her soon-to-be ex-husband.)

Some trainers might have suggested putting Mack in an extended down/stay. Others might have told her to keep his leash on and make a good hard leash correction whenever the phone rang, or to use a shake can to scare him; all designed to correct the behavior through fear and dominance. Positive trainers would probably have recommended giving Mack a time out," or using a replacement behavior like hand targeting. With some dogs these methods may have been temporarily effective, just as yelling at him had been (sort of). But their only lasting effects would have been putting the owner in conflict with her dog. And, over time, guess who usually wins those conflicts?

To me, the fact that Mack showed so much energy when the phone rang was a good thing. My goal was to use that energy to create an almost Pavlovian response: the ringing phone would be a signal for Mack to find a toy, take it to his crate, and chew on it happily while his owner took her call.  (She’d already taught Mack that when he wants to chew something he has to do it inside his crate.)  

So I told the owner that every time the phone rang, instead of correcting him by yelling “No!” or “Quiet!” she should jump up off the couch and praise him very enthusiastically, then grab one of his toys, tease him with it, and run away, encouraging him to chase her.  

Once his energy was fully focused on the toy, and not the phone, she could give him the toy, tell him to take it to his crate. Then she could finally sit down and take her call.  

Of course she thought I was nuts. “Do you know how much energy that would take?”

I reminded her that she’d been expending a lot more energy saying “No!” without getting the results she wanted, and promised her that if she followed my instructions to the letter, Mack would stop barking at the phone in a matter of two weeks.  

“But I shouldn’t praise him for barking, should I?  I mean, isn’t that only going to reinforce the bad behavior?”

“In this case we’re using praise to make Mack feel emotionally connected to you. That way you’ll be able to change his emotional state from resistance into a willingness to obey. You can’t very well create that kind of emotional state by yelling at him.”  

You see, every time Mack's owner corrected him she put herself in conflict with his feelings, forcing him to either keep barking at her until she was in tune with what he was already feeling or to give up.  And Jack Russells are not bred to give up.  By praising him she would be able to remove the conflict and open the flow.  Then and only then could Mack feel that they shared a common purpose and begin to look to her for a signal as to what to do next.

She reluctantly did as I suggested, thinking I was completely insane the whole time, and guess what?  She didn’t even need to do the exercise for two weeks. With just three days of acting like a complete idiot, she was able to create such a dramatic change in Mack’s behavior that she was able to stop doing the exercise completely. Whenever the phone rang Mack would bark briefly, but as soon as his owner told him to find a toy, and hed  do so, take it into his crate, and chew away on it, thinking the whole thing was his idea all along.

Understanding the dog's underlying emotional state — along with replacing the "N" word with a happy, playful voice and attitude — was the key to resolving Mack's problem. 

However ... I need to make the following disclaimer very clear. This situation was solved fairly easily because a) I was there, controlling the emotional tone for Mack and his owner, and b) Mack had been raised by his owner from the time he was a very young pup.

DISCLAIMER: I would be very reluctant to use these techniques with some shelter dogs, particularly those who have spent time living on the streets and who, therefore, may not have the same social impulses or ability to detect playfulness that is second nature to most pet dogs.  I do not recommend activating the prey drive in such dogs, except under the direct supervision of a seasoned professional.

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