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When your dog does not understand “No”

In this modern world, we have much deeper relationships with our dogs, few will disagree with me on this one, but as we are so taken with our dogs, are expert trainers, masters of scientifically proven positive reinforcement training systems, why are there so many dog attacks, aggressive dogs and out of control dogs?

With the internet being the encyclopedia of dog training and behaviour advice at absolutely no cost, shouldn’t our dogs be perfectly behaved at all times?

Well beyond positive reinforcement there are elements such as reinforcement schedules, the necessity to understand that negative punishment goes hand in hand with positive reinforcement and that dogs are individuals and what one finds rewarding, the other may not like at all.

Let me explain some of these…

Reinforcement schedules

This refers to how often you reward your dog for a behaviour and how often your dog expects to be rewarded for a behaviour.

So, if you give you dog a sit cue and your dogs sits and you give the dog a food reward every time, this falls into the constant reinforcement schedule.

Whilst this may sound good, at least for your dog, when you at some point can’t reward your dog or don’t have food, then this instantly switches to negative punishment.

Withdrawing or withholding an expected reward is negative punishment.

Also know that, when a dog feels that the reward (reinforcement) has run out, this will see the dog fail to offer the behaviour. The constant reinforcement schedule has the fastest rate of failure after the reinforcement has stopped.

I was working with a dog today that had great food motivation, and the owner was very keen to reward all the behaviours with food but complained that there were two problems within their relationship.

  1. The dog would lunge and bark at other dogs ignoring her and food.
  2. At other times if he did not get a food reward he would whine, cry and scream.

The problem was that the food held a good value not a great value because he was getting so much of it, and when he was not getting food, he expressed frustration through vocalisation and ended up getting something, from food to some sort of communication (read attention reward) or a hug.

He also had one relationship with the owner and another with the food and obedience. The food was shown to him before an obedience command was given and then he would comply, if there were no competing distractions.

If the food was not shown first he would ignore the cue.

This dog may not have developed these behaviours if he was trained in the intermittent reinforcement schedule which would have him expecting food sometimes and accepting food would not come every time.

This of course would mean that he may increase his value for food beyond the value he has for getting to dogs and perhaps not whine or vocalise when he did not get food every repetition.

When dogs have been lured into every behaviour and rewarded for completion, I find many of them cannot deal with stress. They have never really been given a set of choices in which they chose the wrong one and were told no instead of yes, and had to process that loss, accept it and move on.

This is a minor stressor for a puppy, a learning event. The puppy does not have years of reward history to look back on but is playing it as it lays.

The puppy learns that: –

  • I don’t get a reward every time.
  • Rewards may come in various forms from food rewards, praise, toys or the release of pressure.
  • No is not the end of the world, but you should stop the current behaviour.

It can be highly stressful for a dog that truly expects a reward but at this point you have decided not to give one.

The dogs do not know how to deal with it, they do not know how to fix it, they are frustrated and this is a very common time when undesirable behaviours are created.

Many people reading this may be happy and report that they do not give rewards every time, but is that true? Are you sure?

How about the person that comes home and approaches their dog as soon as they get home each day, “every rep”.

I guess you coming home is a reward right? So, one day when you come home and you don’t feel well and lay on your bed, in the next few minutes your dog is barking incessantly at the back door.

When ever your dog is walked, he or she is allowed to play with the dogs at the dog park, “every rep”.

Then when you walk down the street and see a dog your dog goes nuts to get to it, you don’t allow this, and the response is a lunging dog that is vocalizing and screaming to get that “reward”.

Now, it may be easier and more peaceful to give in to him or her, but if you do, KNOW that saying no in the future will likely produce an even bigger tantrum than you are getting now.

So next time your dog see’s a dog he or she tries to get to them, and you pull out your trusty food rewards.

But you have a dog that CAN get food rewards every rep, and if you say no he or she will whine and vocalize until you give in next time.

Now you have a dog that can afford to ignore your food rewards because he CAN and WILL get them later.

Understanding NO

No is a cue for a dog, it can be paired with punishment, it can be paired with reward, it can be paired with anger or it can mean that your dog should not persist in it’s current behaviour. What it means therefore is up to you to teach.

In our Life Skills program, we teach NO to mean that the dog should not persist in its current behaviour choice.

In my Training in Drive system it is a no reward marker, therefore it means you will not get a reward for that behaviour, try something else.

I take responsibility for teaching my dogs what I want “no” to mean, and when done correctly it is a communication cue that helps the dog understand how to earn a reward by stopping the behaviour he or she is displaying now.

Leash and collar pressure

When a person gets a puppy they will often fit a collar and start pulling the puppy around by the leash. At some point when the puppy has been out in the world and has gained some value for people or perhaps other dogs, he or she will try to pull to them and your “no” in this case is the dog feeling leash pressure.

Again, the puppy does not know how to deal with this loss and may fight, buck and scream to get to the other dog.

It does not take long before a little leash and collar pressure is a signal of frustration to fight the handler for access to people or dogs (rewards).

I find it very useful to teach puppies that leash pressure means I have a reward for them, before they find everything else highly rewarding. When I combine this with heel position training I have a very high drive dog that will walk off leash with me anywhere.

Just watch below…

Off leash in town, Malinois.

Leash off game on

I watch many people enter the park and as soon as they unclip the leash, the dog bolts off into the park to experience its best or worst day.

It does not take long before, unclipping the leash is a signal to bolt away from the handler to have fun.

But does it have to mean that? I will be at home with my puppy and attach a leash to his or her collar, then after a minute or two reach down and unclip the leash, then instantly pull a tug from behind my back and play with the puppy or play a food game.

Leash Off Game On

After doing this a number of times, unclipping the leash signals the dog that I am going to play with him or her. So I get all this attention and willingness rather than a dog that bolts off.

Which would you prefer?

If you have a dog that bolts off when the leash is unclipped, remember he learned that from someone, probably you. Probably the same place he learned to pull on the leash.


You will be the biggest influencer of your dogs behaviour, be a good influence.

I don’t have time to train my dog

The saying above is more accurately, “I don’t have time to train my dog properly”.

Because every time you interact with your dog you ARE training him or her. You are training your dog to be better or worse.

If you train your dog to be worse this will mean “re training”. Re training takes ten times longer than training, at least.

So if you are truly short of time, the least time investment will come from effective training pro actively rather than reactively.

Take a look at this article, it is an oldie but a goodie “Learn how to learn“.

NO causes stress! Say no to no!

If you have heard or believe this, then you should apply this to any and perhaps every interaction with your dog.

It is totally understood that for a clicker to be an effective training aid, we must pair it with reward, load it, condition it, charge it or what ever term you are most comfortable with right?

But the word “no” can only be paired with BAD mojo.

I have personally witnessed hundreds of dogs that were frightened of clickers, but often the owner persisted and re framed the sound from a stressor to a reward cue.

I have worked with dogs that would display aggression when you touched their head, touched their collars, touched their tail, went near their food, walked into their homes and many more things.

There can be complicated reasons behind where these behaviours may have come from, but in simple terms, the dog does not like it when they perhaps should.

So some reframing is needed to help the dog see these triggers from a different perspective.

The perspective needs to be the one we teach… Just like no, or yes, or click.

As always feel free to share or comment.

About SteveK9Pro

Steve Courtney is a Nationally Accredited Canine Behaviour Specialist, Obedience Trainer, Law Enforcement Dog Trainer and ANKC Breeder. Steve has been training dogs all his life and in these articles he shares with you his experience...

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