There is a trend in the dog training world that owners should never correct or punish their dogs-even to the point of never saying “No”. The argument is that we humans are too prone to jump to punishment and we say “No” too often. While I am all for keeping corrections to a minimum, I do believe they have their place. I prefer the term “correction” as opposed to “punishment” simply because I believe that training is really about educating the dog (and the owner, in the process). Punishment brings thoughts of judgement and they-deserve-it, not so much about education and teaching. But when I was in school, if I gave a wrong answer, I was corrected- either verbally or with the correct answer written on my paper beside my wrong answer- and I could learn from that correction. Correction, to me, is a term more in line with the theme of teaching our dogs what we expect of them. And for many dogs, “No” is a viable means of communicating that correction.

I often have to counsel my clients to say “No” to their dogs, because they are afraid that if they do say “No”, it will be wrong, or hurt the dog’s feelings, or ruin the dog, or some such. Yet when they begin using the word “No” thoughtfully and calmly, to mark exactly the behavior they don’t like, the dog begins to improve quickly. We go from providing only one line of feedback- “Yes” or a treat or some reward- to providing two lines of feedback. The dog quickly realizes that we are telling him what we like and what we don’t like, and from there we can help the dog build up their self control so that they are able to rein in their impulses and do more things we like and less things we don’t like.

When my clients don’t say “No”, it seems to me that the training gets all messy. Maybe this is just my point of view, colored by my own impressions and thoughts, but that’s how it seems to me. I haven’t done any videotaping and analysis, so I don’t know for sure. But I regularly see an owner ask their dog to “Sit”, and then when the dog breaks the sit and that command is asked for again, the dog moves or paces, looking for a treat, rather than resuming the command. They’ve been relying on the one form of communication- the “Yes”- and it’s like they are momentarily confused when the reward doesn’t happen before the next command. Keep in mind, I may be being awfully anthropomorphic, because again, I haven’t had a chance to study this. However, it seems to me that when we add in the second marker of “No”, and the dog breaks the sit command again and hears “No”, their attention snaps to the owner, not looking for food, but looking for direction. They hear “No”, and they try to change the situation, to do what you want so they can get the reward, as opposed to simply wondering why you aren’t rewarding them now. Then, when you follow the “No” correction with the repetition of the command “Sit”, the dog is thinking, and decides to try Sit to see if that will change the situation and earn them a reward. They looked for direction, they got it, and then they have another chance to follow the command. This is quite simplistic and certainly isn’t true all the time for every dog, but it’s enough of a trend that I have begun noticing it in my clients’ dogs as they learn.

Obviously, if you are going to lean too far one way or another, it is safer to lean too far toward rewards than punishments. However, I believe that most people are capable of striking a balance. I believe most people can appropriately correct their dog without causing fear or pain. And I believe that throwing out the use of the word “No” for fear of abuse is to lose a valuable tool in communicating with our dogs. Most people need all the help they can get, so throwing out a useful tool is unhelpful.

I use “No” with my dogs, as I do with my cats, and with my kids. “No” allows me to correct a mistake before it turns into a problem. It lets all the members of my family know that I am watching, that I am there to help. When my 15 month old (who is still learning about proper canine etiquette) jumps on one of the family dogs, I tell him “No”. My dogs hear me and invariably relax, knowing that I have the situation under control once again- they do not have to take matters into their own hands to protect themselves. Relaxed dogs are much safer for children to be around, and so the situation goes from one in which things could go downhill quickly to one that turns into a learning opportunity, as I take my son’s hand and show him once again how to properly pet his dogs. (He’s improving, but 15 month olds make mistakes just like 15 year olds, and 30 year olds, etc…. oh yeah- and just like your dog!)

Last night as I was brushing my teeth getting ready for bed, our cat Friendly sat in the bathroom watching me. We keep the bathroom doors shut normally, as our other cat Zuggy loves to play with toilet paper and it is just easier for us to manage the situation than to train him otherwise. As I finished up, I said “Friendly, out”, having long ago taught him the meaning of the word “out”, which he typically obeys. This time, he did not. He just sat there and looked at me, probably wishing he could hunt the floss. Rather than let him stay in the bathroom or pick him up and carry him out, I chose to reinforce the command “Out” with a correction. Cats respond amazingly poorly to punishment in general, so why did I correct my cat? Because I knew he could take the level of correction I was giving him, and I knew it would get the job done with no adverse effects on our relationship. What was his correction? A tap on the shoulder. A simple tap on the shoulder exactly like I would tap my toddler on the shoulder to get his attention. I tapped Friendly and repeated my command “Out”, and he immediately obeyed, calmly and without stress. (If he had not, I would have picked him up and carried him out, but being such a big cat, I’m not sure that being carried is especially comfortable for him, so that would likely have been more stressful, actually, than the tap.)

I hope this demonstrates to you that a correction can, and should, be done calmly, without fear or pain, and with a minimum of stress, all in an effort to educate the individual you are correcting. If I get something wrong, I want to know about it. I have seen the way training, including using “No”, with my reactive dog has raised his self esteem since adopting him 3 years ago. He absolutely loves knowing the answer to something, and if I never told him he was wrong, I think that would be stressful for him, because he is a dog who hates confusion.

Of course there are wrong ways to correct your dog, and there’s more to it than I can go into in a single blog post. The purpose of this blog post isn’t to teach you how to correct your dog or when or if you should (talk to a capable trainer for that information, since it will be specific to your situation). It is instead, I hope, to demonstrate that corrections are not necessarily bad things, and that they can indeed be wonderful tools to enhance your communication with your dog.

I leave you with a gratuitous, cute picture of the dogs snuggling together. Remember to get out there and enjoy your pets!