Give ‘Yes’ a Full Time Job: The Power of Praising Your Dog

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An article in the March 21, 2010 New York Times magazine titled “No, A negative word that is doing battle with its positive counterpart” about politics, health care reform and other initiatives is a valuable read. While it was probably not the author’s intent, it is especially so for anyone endeavoring to teach dogs.

It can be difficult to rid ourselves of using the word ‘no’ on a regular basis during our interactions with our dogs. Maybe due in part to the fact that ‘no’ is often one of the first and most commonly used words for children and is therefore a habit that is hard to break and since we, unfortunately, tend to be a culture very much focused on the negative.

The writer of the article, Ben Zimmer, discusses the Democrats labeling of the Republican Congressional minority as “the party of no.” I think there is a “party of no” in the dog world as well and it is a party that is, regrettably, very well attended.

The positive counterpart to ‘no’ is ‘yes’, and it is a word that deserves far more attention and use. When teaching dogs, people assume their use of the word ‘no’ will to stop unwanted behavior. Sometimes it does. But, more typically, dogs learn to block out what may seem like constant pestering with very little valuable feedback in regards to just what exactly they are expected to do.

Yelling ‘no’ to stop your dog from jumping on the counter temporarily resolves only a small part of the problem. That is, the dog may not jump on the counter at that moment, with you in the room. But, a typically intelligent dog will simply choose opportunities to counter surf that are likely to be met with a positive reinforcement. When you aren’t around is usually the opportunity of choice.

Furthermore, the dog who is attempting to counter surf and is reprimanded with a ‘no’, is surely going to focus this investigative behavior somewhere else. The garbage can might be an option. Then maybe the kitty litter box. Available tissue boxes or rolls of toilet paper (for dogs who see this as potential play things). Odds are that in one 30 minute span with a dog who is looking for a way to spend their time and exert some of their energy, you would have to follow them about and say ‘no’ many times.

Meanwhile, the very lovely word ‘yes’, has been waiting on the sidelines for it’s opportunity to shine. A simple food stuffed chew toy, Flossie or other safe chew object would do wonders to bring ‘yes’ out of retirement and give you an opportunity to better appreciate your dog’s company. After all, a dog lying contentedly by your side is a delight and should be met with a “Yes, what a lovely dog you are!”

For such a small word, ‘yes’ can be charged up to have a lot of power by following it up with a reward (such as an ear scratch, a tasty treat, the toss of a toy, or giving permission to walk through a door or jump up on the couch). So, put ‘yes’ to work with a full time job and put ‘no’ into retirement and odds are both you and your dog will be much happier.