As a dog trainer, I hear frustrations along these lines from almost every one of my new puppy clients when we're getting started with training. Bringing home a new puppy is such an exciting and rewarding experience, but many puppy parents quickly become overwhelmed when they don’t feel like they have a good handle on getting their puppies to stop doing undesired behaviors. Why is it so hard to teach your puppy what NO means?! Is your puppy just stubborn? Spiteful? Untrainable?!
Usually, "no'' in the ways that we try to use it with dogs is extremely vague and conceptual, and dogs aren't great at understanding cues that don't have a specific behavioral meaning to them. For instance, asking your puppy to "sit" means take their hind end and put it on the ground, nothing else. Telling your puppy to "watch" means to make eye contact with you or look at your face, nothing else. These words have a specific, tangible meaning to them that our puppies can understand once they've been taught or the behavior has been trained (most effectively with positive reinforcement).
But when you think about it, "no" can mean all kinds of things in the ways we try to use it with puppies: drop the stolen shoe, stand on the ground instead of jumping up on guests, come here instead of running away from me, the list goes on! When puppies finally do respond to the word "no," it's often because we have escalated our voice, tone, or behavior to the point that now the puppy is just stopping what they're doing because they're startled and are now afraid of us. Usually, you'll notice that this response to an angry or loud "no!" is either a tucked tail and fearful/avoidant body language, or a puppy who might even growl, bark, or snap at you if they are feeling defensive. If we are needing to frequently use an intimidating voice or startling behavior on a regular basis, we run the risk of something called “behavioral fallout” which could be anything from an adult dog with damaged confidence, an unstable long-term relationship with you, or even a dog or puppy who develops fears of certain objects or contexts. For example, if a puppy is always having “no!” yelled at them when they go to jump up on people they’re meeting for the first time, they may start to inadvertently learn that new people predict scary corrections, and behaviors like barking at strangers, nervous peeing, or trying to flee when meeting someone new might pop up.
"No" doesn't tell our dogs what we would actually like for them to be doing. We're just looking for them to stop the behavior they're doing in the moment, but that kind of communication isn't very clear for dogs if they don't know what the desired alternative is, especially if we are trying to apply the "concept" of no to several different kinds of contexts in our daily lives. If you are noticing several points in your day-to-day life with your puppy that you're often needing to tell them "no," this is a flag to you that there may be a missing skill that you can train so that your dog has a more appropriate known behavior to choose instead! This could look like: teaching your puppy a reliable "trade me" cue when they have something they shouldn't, teaching your puppy how to touch their nose to your hand (hand targeting) as a way to ask them to come when called, or even teaching your puppy to "sit" to ask for pets instead of jumping up. It requires a bit of a mindset shift out of “I want my puppy to STOP doing this” and retraining yourself to think “what should my puppy do instead?” You will always find living with your puppy a lot less frustrating when you focus on teaching them appropriate, proactive behaviors instead of always focusing on “stopping” the negatives. Your puppy will thank you for the clear communication as well!
So What Am I Supposed To Do Instead?!
I don’t blame you for reaching to tell your puppy “no” when you see behavior you want to stop. It’s a natural human response especially when you don’t feel like you have an alternative! Life happens, management fails, our puppies won't always make the best decisions even if we are actively working on their training to teach them alternative behaviors. Because of this, I like to have a "positive interrupter" taught to all my dogs and puppies as a means to STOP behavior in the moment, as it's happening, and ask them to come find me for a reward instead. This is a tangible, trained behavior that allows me a chance to press "pause" on whatever is happening, get my puppy's attention, and then think to myself about how I want to redirect or manage them at that moment to prevent the behavior from continuing. This requires a bit of proactive conditioning to teach your dog what the interrupter word means, but it is fairly easy and straightforward to teach. Most dogs catch on to this training after just a couple of sessions!
Want to learn more about teaching a positive interrupter? Check this tutorial out: