I am an advocate of silence when I work with my dogs.  Body language, eye contact, and hand signals.  Dogs watch us closely for these things with a laser-like precision.  When we are not attentive to the signals we give, the dog becomes confused, and leadership from the human trainer  fails.  We must always be aware of what our faces, limbs, and body are communicating to our dog.  Learning and applying this knowledge  of the silent art is an ongoing process for me, and others who attempt it.  I may never become its master, but the dogs are helping me learn more each day about their silent language…

The dog, yours and mine, has mastered an understanding of human communication and language far faster than the reverse.  When we speak to our dogs using the spoken word, they grasp it quickly.  And it makes no difference what national language we use…I have heard English, German, Dutch, Russian, Italian, Gaelic, Hungarian, and Nonsense words used on the training field to direct dogs, all with equal success.

In the year 2012 A.D.,  “Language” has become a political battlefield.  As in “politically correct” or decidedly “politically incorrect.”  You can find examples of this without excess effort in most every human endeavor…And this brings me to the subject at hand.  I was recently informed by a professional dog trainer that the word “No” is unacceptable and possibly even cruel to use when training a dog…Hmmmmmmmm.

I was working with our 18-month old female German Shepherd, “Holly”, at the Agility training facility that we frequent.  The trainer was not our usual one, a gentleman  I consider a very talented trainer that understands how a dogs mind works.  No, this days observer was a young lady that is very much the Operant Conditioning style of training.  She is very well versed in this method, and has her share of admirers and success, as she deserves.  I’ll call her “Katie” because that’s the name her parents bestowed upon her…

We had Holly running a fairly straight-forward course with two separate 180 degree course reverses, one that requires entering a tunnel obstacle.  Holly sometimes prefers running around the tunnels, than entering them.  And that’s what she attempted this time.  As she dodged the entrance, I gave her a command she knows well, and responds to quickly as I have trained her.  I spoke it to her in a no-nonsense tone that she also knows well.   “NO!!!” 

She stopped in her tracks, reversed course and entered the tunnel, tail-wagging.  She exited the tunnel and shot out directly for the teeter-totter without mental pause.  Katie immediately blew her whistle in a long blast and stopped the run, (which thank goodness wasn’t a qualifying run anyway).  “Recall your dog…” she commanded me sternly.

She didn’t even wait for Holly to return to my heel before her tirade began.  “At this facility we do not allow negative words to be used with any dog at any time.  You are harming the dogs mental health and she will become frightened…You must never use the word “NO” again with her or any dog while training here…”  (It should be noted that this rule is not the rule of most of the trainers here.  This was a singular event, and an opinion of a single individual.  Sadly enough though, this mind-set is common thru the so-called “Positive training” community.  In large part, I find Agility Trainers to have moved beyond such training and embraced more “relationship-based” style training.)

Now, I understand the ban on cursing in this public place, and I support it.  But when did the word “NO” begin to be squeezed into that definition???

During Holly’s next attempt, she repeated the mistake.  This time, aware that I was being watched closely, I didn’t speak.  However, I did stop suddenly, square my body directly at Holly, and gave her the unmistakable body language equivalent of,    “No! Stop, put your furry butt thru that tunnel and do it right this time.”   Our pony-tailed trainer missed my silent communication completely.  Holly read me clearly and without hesitation.  It didn’t seem to hurt her at all, as she returned to my side, tail wagging.  Either way, I told her “NO” and she understood without mental or physical trauma to her psyche…

Now let me explain something.  We CAN move our dogs without speaking to them.  But here’s why I will always, always, always, teach a verbal “NO” command to any dog I train.  I will expect an immediate and unquestioned response every time.  This will taught to them without striking the dog, or otherwise instilling fear.  But they will  obey the command.

In our search & rescue training, or trailing work, my dogs are often worked “off-leash”.  In these instances, the dog is never looking at me (as Handler) for behavior cues.  He is focused on the task at nose.  But he is using his secondary sense of hearing to keep track of his handler.  I’m watching his back, offering him cover so to speak.  Here, I use “NO” as an all-purpose command.  Whatever the dog is doing, STOP IT RIGHT NOW.  I may be protecting him.  I may be re-assigning his task.  I may be saying it’s okay to stop tracking, it’s break time.  If my dog jumped a deer out of the brush, my NO command will, (and Has) broken the pursuit off and redirected his brain.  Think of this:  Many dogs have the temerity to run from their owners after whatever grabs their  attention…Trainers see this every day.  Recalls are often the weakest link in a dogs training, and many dogs will head to the distant horizon trailed by a human shouting obscenities, or repeated cries of “Stop! Stop! in one language or another.”

That’s why I teach “No” as a general command to stop any activity.  It’s fast, unmistakable to a dogs knowledge, and instinctive to us. It will make a dog correct a small mistake on an agility course, prevent him from running into a busy street full of cars, or keep him from filching your pancakes carelessly left unattended.  The simple word, “No” is not harmful.  It is not a weapon.  It can be a life-saver.  What caring parent ever hesitated to say, or even scream “NO!!!”  at a human child that is headed for the street without caution?  Sadly, it seems that some parents today ARE refusing to say “No” to children so that they don’t “…stunt their self-esteem, or damage their development as free-thinkers…”    We’ve seen the results of this sort of parenting, and we may never come back from the brink of that disaster.

When a soldier in combat is commanded to “Halt” midstride by a less than cordial Platoon Sargent, do you think that he says, “That’s just mean of him.!” ?  I can say without fear of contradiction, No. You understand my point.

If you are of a mind to feel that “No” is a cruel command to teach a dog or a child, I urge you to expand beyond what political correctness or “behavioral science” might try to impress upon you as the “latest” model.  Such discipline is what “Leadership”,  in it’s best form is based upon.  Be Your Dog’s Leader…You owe it to him.


  1. Cheryl Garn says:

    Robert, sorry so late to the blog. ~ Before 6 mo. old – I trained “Strider” to recognize and react to “concise and logical” “one word” commands. Strider also recognizes our “in-between” gibberish, baby sounds and anticipates distinct sounds of our other word constructs as they relate to our body movements and daily routines. As well, I incorporated simple hand signals with these one-word commands to reinforce his ability to trust when I mean what I say, especially when I can’t say it. One is not always in visual range of your dog when social issues arise. Our boy, unfortunately is hardly ever around other dogs or people so I felt this training was a social imperative.
    I believe any word can take on “negative” connotations. Who thinks animals have the ability to intellectualize literal dictionary definitions of the words your using? Even the word “cupcake” could mean certain reprimand or punishment to your dog, if you connect that association with it.
    Strider’s ability to understand the “power of my one word commands” came in several unintended tests when he has spotted other dogs heading into our yard and I could not jump out of my chair and off my porch fast enough. Thank God for the big warning bark and even though I became felt instant panic ~ on all those occasions, I let out a very clear, big, booming, masculine voice and burst into each of the words…STRIDER ! – NO ! – STOP ! – STRIDER ! –
    NOW !” – A couple of times his claws literally dug into the very line at the of grass and
    pavement which represents the “invisible fence” I trained him every day to recognize. His butt slid upwards towards his head and I could swear I heard the distant overdub of screeching brakes… just like in the cartoons (ha !) Although Strider’s dander still stands up as high as tail, he does an immediate U-turn, making eye contact with me and starts his retreat back up into the yard. Before I approached his side, the next order of commands are already out of my mouth. HEEL ! – NOW !!
    Whew !! – By the time my heart slides back down my throat, with his participation, I successfully reign him in for which he is justly rewarded with many praises and extra treats I keep inside the door.
    Long distance and free roam perimeter control is one of my most cherished commands. I know how important it is because there is NO certainty in any given circumstance with my dog.
    He has NEVER independently went outside of our property, – all four sides of it even though for some reason all the “smaller” dogs on our street have decided to come at Strider in his own domain, while he’s minding his own business, sitting like a regal lion quietly surveying his kingdom. If my dog could understand and speak the english language with me, I am sure he’d turn around to me and say, …”what’s up with that?” Yes, – No… means No !

  2. I generally use “Wait!” instead because that gives the dog something to do.


  3. I don’t use the word “No” very often (if at all) because I don’t think it provides the dog with the right kind of information, i.e., what to do INSTEAD.


  4. Exactly. Take away the power of “NO” and you throw away your greatest safety tool. Without charging your respectful, firm “NO,” you send your dog out into a dangerous world without a safety line. I will always protect my dog with my “NO.”