YES! Is the new NO!

Written by Claire Atkinson M.A. (Cantab.), Qualified Dog Behaviourist and Certified Tellington Touch® Practitioner

“No! No… no Fido!” I see the frustrated owner at the end of her leash (pun intended).  And Fido is, well, not at the end of the leash; but why is the owner upset? I don’t know exactly what Fido is doing to upset his owner. And neither does Fido.

Fido does not understand our language. He can, however, learn to associate a word with an action. So we have a short, simple vocabulary of words we use to encourage our dogs to respond appropriately. ‘Sit’ means “put your butt on the floor”; it is a specific word that results (hopefully) in a specific reaction.

“NO, don’t chase the other dog”; “NO, don’t bark”; “NO, don’t jump”... none of these work because, firstly, the dog does not reason in a human way by hearing a word and then making the connection, such as “Oh, she means I mustn’t jump.”  Non-specific word equals non-specific reaction. Also, note the negativity: “no – don’t do that”. Even the best-behaved behaviourists sometimes use ‘no’. For me, it’s a knee-jerk reaction while I work out an alternative.

Whatever our reaction, the fact is that we have an alternative – and that alternative is ‘Yes’. We get to ‘yes’ when we decide what we do want the dog to do: give him a cue word, he responds, we praise ‘Yes’ and we give him a yummy treat. The chances are that the behaviour will be repeated. Success!

This is how it works: Fido jumps up on visitors; it is a behaviour you wish to change. ‘No’ clearly hasn’t worked (and nor will any form of punishment). The behaviour I would like is for Fido to ‘sit’ when visitors arrive. First I have to teach him this word and its associated response. I do this often, starting with food time. ‘Sit’ – butt on floor, food on the table, as it were.

He is now aware that this command means yummy stuff is coming. So you can move along to asking him to sit in various places at different times. Gain his attention, and when he’s focused on you, ask him to sit. As soon as he does, say ‘yes’, give him a treat and a pat, and let him go. Repeated often, consistently  (that means every member of the family does it in the same way) it doesn’t take long for Fido to work out that ‘sit’ means butt on floor, yummy treat, ‘yes’ and a pat on the back.

You can now use this to prevent him from jumping or eating your best shoes – you replace “don’t do that” with “do this”. Fido, like most dogs, likes to please and appreciates clear communication. You are setting yourself and your dog up for success – win-win all round.

If you are into serious training, you may use a clicker and/or hand signals. I find both useful – especially hand signals because dogs communicate through body language, so my hand straight up means ‘sit’. But wherever you are at, losing ‘no’ and gaining ‘yes’ will get the results you would like, and you and your dog will be the happier for that.

‘Yes’ is the new ‘No’. Because it works. Simple.