I’m dating myself, as some of you may not have been born when the Far Side cartoon ran daily in print newspapers. Anyone else remember the one in which the human is admonishing dog Ginger and the bubble by the dog’s head reads, “Blaah, blaah, Ginger, blaah, blaah, blaah, blaah”? How many times have we exclaimed, “But my dog totally understands what I’m saying!” Yet it’s probably more like the Ginger cartoon and something is getting lost in translation. The cartoon also reminds me of places where I’ve traveled and learned a few key phrases in the language of that country, use them, and the local person assumes I know more than I do and launches into a full blown conversation in the other language. The caption for me might as well be, “Blaah, blaah, Tracy, blaah blaah blaah”.
Dogs do communicate but I hate to be the one to break it to you: it’s not English, or any other verbal language spoken by us humans. That’s not to say that dogs and other non-human animals can’t learn to associate a verbal cue made by a human with a behavior–i.e. perform a “sit” when the human says “sit”. But it’s a learned process and/or learned association, like my dog looking expectantly if she hears, “blaah, blaah, treat”; there must be food somewhere, right?
Years ago I worked with some preschoolers and I can tell you that it would have been easy to spend the entire morning saying “No” to this behavior or that. I learned pretty quickly that saying “Yes” was far more effective and constructive in terms of relationship building with these kiddos than saying “No” 100 times before lunch. By saying “No”, I found I was focusing on what I didn’t want to happen. And saying, “No Jamie, stop painting on the wall,” would inevitably result in Jamie just turning to the floor and painting on that instead. Which would then require me to again say, “No Jamie, don’t paint there.” Jamie needed fewer “No’s” and more guidance on how to earn a “Yes”–in other words, where did I want Jamie to paint? Did Jamie understand the parameters of where to apply the paint? By focusing on the yes, I could show Jamie the appropriate place to paint and recognize his behavior when he painted on the paper pinned to his easel rather than the wall, floor, or lots of other creative spots. 🙂
In the cartoon, the human says, “Okay, Ginger, I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage!” Ginger may be a really bright four-legged creature, but she really has no idea what the human is saying except, maybe, given the apostrophes, she picks up that there is a lot of emotion attached to those words being said around her name, and maybe even picks up that something is not ok. In other words, the word “No” itself does little to inform our pet about key parameters–but a loud voice, stern tone, other accompanying sounds like slamming our fist on the top of the garbage bin, tenseness, glaring, or other body language signals like shaking our finger at them are all more communicative to Ginger than the actual words we used.
To a dog, all of the stuff that tends to accompany this ‘No-ness” can be alarming if not downright aversive. Ginger may also draw the wrong conclusion: don’t go near the garbage when the human is around, as they seem to go ballistic and that’s scary! But then don’t be surprised if you come home and the garbage has been turned over. Ginger wasn’t necessarily trying to deceive you, she just learned the wrong lesson. She didn’t learn not to forage in the garbage, she just learned not to forage in the garbage around humans. So she waited for the human to leave and then started nosing around. Putting the garbage bin behind a closed door to prevent this scenario and then giving your dog more acceptable foraging opportunities – like food puzzles, for example – instead is a handy “yes” strategy to avoid having to scream your displeasure about what the natural forager did in the presence of foragable food–which can save you a lot of stress and mess, and can save your relationship with your dog, too.
What do I say instead of “No” or “eh-eh”?
Management isn’t fool proof and there are times when your pooch does something that you’d like her to stop doing. Rather than focusing on the “No”, I use a well rehearsed positive interrupter to get my dog’s (or cat’s) attention and then engage them to do something more constructive–in other words, focus on the “Yes”. For example, when our dog See Kao gazes at our cat Take in a way that I know means trouble is brewing, I say “Pookie”, which is See Kao’s positive interrupter. See Kao looks away from Take and at me, then I ask her to come over and hand target, then we move to another part of the house. Note: in this example, I proactively interrupted the scenario before both my dog and cat were all ramped up. Ideally we want to practice the use of a positive interrupter in a variety of situations and “proof the cue” so the behavior will be fluent and reliable. It’s not fair to expect See Kao to be able to respond to the positive interrupter if we haven’t practiced it under difficult distractions and scenarios. Conversely, if the situation could possibly harm your critter and you’re iffy about whether your positive interrupter will work, that is not the time to trial and eval – do what you need to do to keep your pet safe, hopefully in a calm manner that won’t damage your pet’s trust in you.
- Examine in what situations you find yourself saying “No” and explore what management step or set up could possibly prevent the situation from happening
- Introduce your pet to a positive interrupter cue or if you already have one, practice using it in novel situations or with different distractions
- Practice chaining your PI cue with what you DO want your dog to do, e.g. give PI cue, your pet looks at you then ask them to go their mat, back up, do a touch or whatever behavior is appropriate for the situation