Spare The Rod, Spoil The Dog?

cartoon of man scolding dogWhy, When and How to Say No to your dog.

Likely the most discussed and disagreed upon facet of guiding and teaching our canine companions is…. discipline.

It’s one of those facets of dog behaviour about which it’s said that the only thing two trainers might agree on is that the third trainer is doing it wrong.

Of course we need to tell our dogs no… but do so in a canine familiar style and structure. This does not include swatting with a newspaper, squirting lemon juice in their face or “pinning” the dog to the ground. If we discipline our dogs too aggressively they will fear, not respect us. People who rely on dominance theory to train their pets may need to regularly threaten them with aggressive displays or repeatedly use physical force. Conversely, pets subjected to threats or force may not offer submissive behaviour, instead, they may react with aggression, not because they are trying to be dominant but because the human threatening them makes them afraid; they are simply protecting themselves.

Why say no?

I would have to say that a large percentage of behavioural issues I am called upon to resolve are based on discipline that has been applied too harshly, inconsistently or the more common… little or none at all.

Dogs are no different than any other social species on our planet in that they benefit from an understanding of the limitations and boundaries of their social environment. If someone is not there to set those limits and teach them as to where the boundaries lay the consequences could be grievous.

It’s common knowledge that our children need guidance, limit setting and effective consequences for misbehaviour. Our dogs are no different. Under normal circumstances these lessons would be taught by a puppy’s mother but when at eight weeks of age a pup is transferred to the care of a human, we must assume the parental responsibility. If not, our adorable puppy may grow to become a frustrating nuisance.

The Dominance Theory effect.

Many people have an instinctive dislike for the thought of “dominating” their dog and with no other tools offered, apply little if any discipline. Other dog owners fall too easily into the role of dominating their dog.

For decades dog trainers have relied upon the theory of social dominance behaviour in wolves as the cornerstone of training and managing dog behaviour. We were taught that we must be tough disciplinarians with our dogs otherwise they will run amuck. I heard of one trainer who taught students that all dogs are potentially aggressive and yearn to dominate you. If a dog was stubborn and disobedient it was necessary to badger the dog until they became aggressive in order to exert our dominance and have the dog understand who the Alpha in the pack is.

Closer to the truth is that there is indeed a pack leader but rather than a “hard as nails General” in charge of the troops; the leader is more like a patriarch/matriarch. The pack is more like a family unit with Dad and Mom guiding the family. There is dominant and submissive behaviour within the pack members but the expressions of the behaviours are subtle.

Dominance and leadership are not synonymous.

Leadership should be attained by more positive means – by rewarding appropriate behaviours and using desired resources such as food, toys or affection as reinforcement for these behaviours. Leadership is established when a dog owner can consistently set clear limits for behaviour and effectively communicate the rules by immediately rewarding the correct behaviours and preventing access to or removing the rewards for undesirable behaviours before these undesirable behaviours are reinforced. Owners must avoid reinforcing undesirable behaviours and only reinforce the desirable behaviours frequently enough and consistently enough for the good behaviours to become a habit.

With so much focus on dominance and discipline we spend more time saying No and not near enough time guiding our dogs by teaching them what it is we desire from them.

We very much need to say No to our dogs but we need to do so with patience and persistence rather than using force and coercion.

When to say no.

Timing is very important and your dog will understand you better if it is easily able to relate your discipline communication to what it is they are doing that merits your displeasure. If you arrive home and the first thing you see is the chewed table leg and start angrily berating your dog as it approaches you tail wagging and eager to say hello; you can well imagine the effect this could have on your relationship. In this situation your best response… is none at all; except to recognize that boredom, teething or anxiety led to the chewing. Address why the dog is chewing and the chewing will stop.

An absolute of applying discipline with dogs is that you must follow through and teach the lesson each and every time. The lesson must be calm, assertive and most importantly; delivered without fail, each and every time the misbehaviour occurs. Dogs learn by identifying patterns of behaviour and communication from us. When we apply discipline inconsistently it breaks the pattern of our behaviour making it more difficult for our dog to learn. Many dogs that appear stubborn and obstinate to change are more likely not understanding what we want from them.

There are occasions when we don’t have to wait for our dog to commit the misbehaviour before saying No.

For example: Your dog has discovered it can steal food off the kitchen counters and table. You can more effectively teach your dog that food on the table or counter is off limits by consistently disciplining your dog when they simply display interest in the food. Every time you see your dog raising their nose to table or counter level and sniffing to locate the food; tell them No for simply displaying interest. After twice telling them No, if they don’t move away then step between your dog and the source of their interest and back them away a step at a time until they defer and move away.

Because each dog has a different personality and the circumstances and motivation for the misbehaviour differs; the use of discipline and the form it takes needs to be carefully considered. If your dog jumps up excitedly at visitors to your home, should you reprimand your dog for being happy to greet visitors or would it be better to teach your dog a more self-controlled greeting style. It’s easy to say… No. But, it takes patience, imagination and perseverance to do the work of teaching your dog to greet visitors more calmly.

When NOT to say no.

We should not be disciplining our dogs is when we are teaching them. If you are training your dog to sit, lie down or walk properly and they are reprimanded when they fail, you can imagine the result… a dog that does not want to learn from you. If a dog fails when learning it simply means they don’t yet understand; which means your task should be to patiently clarify and repeat the lesson. If you begin to feel frustrated then end the lesson and try another time. If you aren’t having fun teaching, your dog won’t be having fun learning.

Take care not to discipline the wrong behaviour. At the dog park your dog jumps up on another person leaving muddy paw prints. Horrified, you call your dog to you and on their arrival tell them what a bad dog they’ve been. Are you disciplining their jumping up or for coming to you when you called?

Separation anxiety. When a dog is separation anxious they may bark or howl, chew or scratch destructively and may urinate or defecate in the home. These are all symptoms of their fears and help to relieve their stress. This is not an occasion to apply discipline. Reprimanding them for barking, being destructive or messing in the home will only increase their fear and anxiety. By working to resolve their fear at being separated from you the barking, destruction or messing in the home will go away. (Click here for an in depth article on separation anxiety.)

How to say no.

  • Applying discipline should be done calmly and with certainty. The application of a discipline communication should never be done in frustration or anger.
  • The most effective canine leader is one who delivers discipline calmly, yet with strength and certainty. Agitated-aggressive leaders are feared, not respected.
  • Use simple sounds or words (Rover… No! or Rover… Hey! etc.) It’s said that by using your dog’s name before delivering a discipline communication the dog will learn that its name is a negative. This would be true if “Rover… bad dog”, was the only communication you ever made to your dog. Dog’s can easily differentiate between a discipline tone and happy tone to our voice. In multiple dog homes it is especially important to clearly identify who is being disciplined.
  • Avoid higher or excited sounding tones of voice. Calm and firm, lower tones of voice are more effective. Avoid having a lilt to your voice. The words should be spoken in a monotone. Take care not to sound aggressive or angry, especially with dogs that have an anxious disposition.
  • Timing is very important. Delivery of a discipline communication must take place at the very moment your dog is displaying the undesirable behaviour.
  • Get close to your dog as soon as possible after the first discipline communication in order to amplify your assertiveness and let them know you are serious. If your dog is barking at the window; tell them No; then immediately move to them and stand close to amplify your presence.
  • Eye contact is very important. When delivering a discipline communication look at your dogs eyes and continue to stare at your dog until such time as you determine that the discipline has been effective and your dog has stopped what it was doing and has relaxed, moved away, lay down, etc. Although your dog will not continually make eye contact with you, keep looking at your dogs head and eyes for that opportunity when your dog will make a quick glance toward to check if you still mean business.
  • Use the same discipline communication for all circumstances. By using the same word or phrase every time discipline is communicated, your dog will more easily be able to identify what it is they shouldn’t be doing. Dogs make a connection between the communication they are hearing and what they are doing at the moment. It is unnecessary to use a variety of discipline words for different circumstances.
  • Do not praise after applying discipline. Behaviour is shaped by its final and strongest consequence. If a discipline communication is quickly followed by praise it weakens the discipline. Because we are so tickled that our dog listened well and stopped what it was doing we inevitably deliver high praise which usually is much stronger than the discipline communication. No mixed messages. In the dog world; No simply means…No. If Fido is getting too close to Rover’s favourite toy, Rover will become still, make eye contact with Fido, curl his flews and perhaps growl. Fido, taking the hint, will stop advancing and move away. When Fido has backed away to Rover’s satisfaction Rover will simply return to playing with his toy. At no time is there any indication that Rover turns to Fido and praises him in gratitude for being a good listener.
  • Exude assertive energy, follow through and be certain you succeed every time.

These are the basics of applying discipline to our canine companions. However, each and every dog is different, as are the motivations for what we call misbehaviour. There are many variables involved in determining the motivation for a dog’s misbehaviour. Often it is better to address the cause rather than focussing on discipline.

After many decades of study we are still learning about the subtleties of canine behaviour. Knowledge that we were confident in five decades ago is being pushed aside by more recent research. Unfortunately there are many dog trainers whose understanding of dog behaviour has not kept up with the greater understanding we have today and continue to use techniques of applying discipline that are unnecessarily aggressive and result in dogs that become increasingly fearful and/or aggressive.

If your canine companion has behavioural issues that challenge your patience and no matter how often you say NO! things just don’t change; it’s time to consult a professional. When you do, don’t be shy about questioning the reason for the type of discipline they recommend, especially if you feel uncomfortable with the techniques because they feel too harsh and aggressive. If the explanation given doesn’t make sense to you; trust your instincts and get a second opinion.

A skilled trainer will be focused on identifying and resolving the cause of the misbehaviour so that the need to apply discipline is minimized.

A less skilled trainer will recommend that you aggressively dominate your dog and use punishment to force them into compliance.

© 2011 Steven J. Huxter. All Rights Reserved


“Because fear and anxiety are common causes of aggression and other behaviour problems, including those that mimic resource guarding, the use of punishment can directly exacerbate the problem by increasing the animal’s fear or anxiety. Overall, the use of dominance theory to understand human-animal interactions leads to an antagonistic relationship between owners and their pets.” (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior – 2007.)