my dog doesn't understand the meaning of no

My dog won’t take no for an answer

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“My dog has many good points but does not take no for an answer and is very disobedient when he appears to be totally deaf.”

So wrote a reader of her “challenging” dog.

Well, I’m glad the poor dog’s owner recognises he has good points! But the rest of her statement means that she doesn’t understand her dog or his motivation one bit.

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Disobedient. The dictionary tells us this means “refusing to obey rules or someone in authority”. Now if you’re to obey rules, you have to know what those rules are. And I’m willing to bet this dog has NO idea what the rules are that he’s meant to “obey”!

A common misconception

There seems to be an extraordinary misunderstanding rife amongst dog-owners. They think their dog arrives pre-programmed with English (or Spanish, or Turkish, or whatever they speak themselves). They think that the dog will have a perfect understanding of the meaning of words enunciated loudly and with clarity. So “SIT!” should immediately have the dog sitting.

Furthermore, they think that all their physical expressions and vocal tones will be instantly understood. So “NOOOOOO!” said in a menacing way with finger wagging will clearly mean “Take your paws off the table and go to your basket.”

How is your non-verbal, non-human, dog meant to know this?

Teach first

In the first place, your dog needs to be taught what it is that’s wanted - not left to guess, take pot-luck and hope he gets it right.

You have to give the dog information about what it is you want, not just what you don’t want.

Think of a toddler in your home. You’d be showing her what you wanted, kindly and patiently, naming objects and actions in that motherly chatty way that comes naturally to loving parents. Requests would come as suggestions, (Do you think your teddy bear would like to have tea now?) You wouldn’t bark orders at her! You wouldn’t expect her to understand language before she is verbal herself!

You may treat your dog the exact same way. And it’ll help if you think of how you get your wishes known and followed with your human family.

Cues not commands

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Do you order, or “command” your partner or family?

Or do you perhaps ask them?

Perhaps you drop hints, without even saying anything at all! For instance, you may come home exhausted and throw yourself into an armchair. A sensitive family member may say “I’ll put the shopping away for you - would you like a cup of tea?” Or even, “You make us a cup of tea and I’ll deal with all these groceries.”

We give and take. We assess a person’s mood and act accordingly. We adapt our requirements to the situation. We are kind and patient (if we want to keep the peace!).

In enlightened dog training, we call these communications - not “commands” but “cues”. They can be vocal cues (“Would you like to sit?”), or they could be environmental cues (I’m holding your lead - if you want me to put it on you for a walk you need to sit). And no, they don’t understand every word - neither does your toddler. But they can get the drift.

So if you take the word “command” right out of your vocabulary you may find that straight away you get on better with your dog. Really!

You have asked your dog to Sit and she doesn’t. Instead of shouting SIT ever louder and more urgently, you may ask yourself why she doesn’t sit:

• Is it because she’s in pain?

• Is it because the floor is slippery so she’s unable to prop herself up?

• Is it because it’s wet and muddy and she’s a comfort-lover? (My whippet wouldn’t dream of sitting on wet grass - and I’d never ask her to!)

• Is it because she’s distracted by the dog over the road/the postman/children screaming/the shopping bags on the floor/[insert your dog’s fear or fancy here]?

• … or is it perhaps because you never taught her?

“Disobedient” and other such words

The dictionary gives us related words for disobedient:

unruly, wayward, errant, disorderly, delinquent, disruptive, troublesome, rebellious, defiant, mutinous, recalcitrant, uncooperative, non-compliant, wilful, unbiddable, intractable, obstreperous, awkward, difficult, perverse, contrary, naughty, mischievous …

I’ve heard almost all of those words applied to a dog’s behaviour by a frustrated and thwarted owner! Often it’s new dog-owners talking about their first puppy. They clearly are labouring under the misapprehension I outlined above, and are expecting miraculous perception from this baby of another species.

Usually I suggest they substitute the word they’ve used (often stubborn, difficult, disobedient) with a word which better fits the situation: try fearful, shy, overexcited, hungry, overtired … perhaps the sort of words you may use to describe that little toddler who is not doing what you’d like.

We all have reasons for doing things

Of one thing you may be sure - dogs don’t do things for no reason.

You may not be able to see or understand the reason - but there is a reason! And as we’re meant to be the ones with the bigger brains, and we chose to have this dog live with us, it’s up to us to work out what that reason is.

You’ll find some study of Dog Body Language will repay you well (see Resources below). Your dog will heave a huge sigh of relief when at last you seem to understand his clear messages! And no, they’re not obvious to most of us dumb humans till they’re explained to us.

Once you know whether your dog is just distracted or - perhaps - afraid, you’ll be able to deal accordingly with the situation. Keep in mind that you cannot train an emotion-based behaviour out of a dog. They’re not operating on a rational basis at that moment, any more than your shrieking toddler who wants something she can’t get.

So, as I replied to the reader I quoted at the top of this piece, assess the situation carefully before you apportion blame. Your dog needs your help and understanding, not condemnation.

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“He’s a terrier - he’s never going to come when he’s called!”

“You can’t teach a spaniel to listen. Their attention span is only a few seconds”

“My dog’s thick. It’s a waste of time teaching him anything.”

 

Really. People say these things. And they become self-fulfilling prophecies.

If you truly believe that your terrier will never come when he’s called, then guess what? He never will.

If you really think that your spaniel is incapable of focus, then you’ll never put in the work needed to build a team with him.

And if you truly think your dog is too stupid to learn anything, you have a cast iron excuse for never bothering to teach him.

Get-out clauses?

These are all lazy, get-out, clauses. You got a dog - you thought it would be a good idea - then found that it didn’t come with training and manners installed. You were expected to add these yourself? Oh no! Work required - application, dedication, education, understanding, patience … This all seemed too hard. Much easier to claim that your dog is untrainable and leave it at that.

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I recently had an email which read: “I have two dogs, one is a perfect companion and the other is a challenge. She has many good points but does not take no for an answer and is very disobedient when she appears to be totally deaf.”

So her first dog is perfect, and the second is not. (I wonder how much this had to do with the individual attention that No.1 got, while No.2 was tossed into the mix to sink or swim?) Her dog is disobedient, she doesn’t listen, and won’t take no for an answer.

What a lot of labels in a couple of sentences! This poor dog is always going to struggle against her owner’s preconceived notion that she is difficult, stubborn, and uncaring. Whatever she does will be perceived as wrong, or potentially troublesome, while Dog 1 gets all the praise for being a goody-gumps. (Any of you younger children out there may recognise the same thing from your own family life, where there was one favoured child and one difficult one.) 

And it’s likely that when she does do something right it’s either not noticed or greeted with “For once! At last …”

This dog needs a program of training which caters to her own individuality, her own quirks and foibles. You cannot blossom when continually compared with someone else - you have to have a pride in your own achievements, done your own way.

So my reply to this owner was along these lines: 

“My dogs don't understand the meaning of NO either - why? I never say “no” to them. “No” doesn't give them any information about what you'd like them to do - only that you're cross with them. Try focussing only on what you do want, and rewarding that. Totally ignore what you don't want. Give it a week and see where you are!

This is what a puppy-owner said to me this week:

“Just thought that I would let you know that your brilliant idea of rewarding for the behaviour that we want has helped Odin to become a very calm and patient puppy when it's our dinner time. He will lie down nicely and play with his toys while we're eating. :)”

This took her about 10 days to achieve.

Come back to me in two weeks and tell me how you get on.”

 

Sadly I didn’t hear from her again. So I guess Dog no.2 is still being shouted at.

 

As the famous saying goes, “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you always got.”

 

There has to be change for change to happen. And the first change is in your mindset! All our dogs are capable of being trained, of learning new things, and of fitting into the household comfortably. Yes, it takes time, and all that dedication and self-education, understanding and patience, mentioned above. But is it worth it? What do you think?

 

But what about my terrier / spaniel / dumb dog?

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• To see just what terriers are capable of, take a look at Jesse the Jack Russell Terrier. You will be amazed! 

• Think of what spaniels are bred for - hours and hours of tireless work in the field, focussing on one thing only - finding birds. They are capable of laser focus - if the reward is right you can teach your spaniel to focus on anything you like!

• And as for our dumb dog … it’s true that some dogs are not blessed with as many brains as others. Cricket the Whippet will never beat Rollo the Border Collie in an initiative test, though if there is food to be found - she’ll find it! Her phenomenal speed is in her legs, not in the workings of her brain.  But she has plenty to offer, and once you’re on her wavelength you can teach her some very un-whippety things to do. Cricket - and Bolt, another whippet I know - have great retrieves.

Here’s Cricket showing off her amateur dramatics

You see? Her gift is in making us laugh!

 

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