When I was first introduced to positive reinforcement training methods I was taught that telling your dog “no” (AKA a no reward marker) was not needed when training a dog. As I have grown as a training and behavior professional, I have changed my views on telling a dog that they have made a mistake by using words like “no”, “nope”, “oops” etc.
I use to believe that letting a dog know that they were wrong or that they made a mistake was really bad. It was drilled into me that letting a dog know they made a mistake was very aversive. Instead, I was taught to let the dog know they made a mistake by turning my back and walking away or having the dog try again. I have come to realize that using a word to mean “That is wrong” or “You made a mistake” is feedback and information for the dog (or any learner for that matter).
The biggest issue I find for most trainers who feel using the word “no” is aversive is because many old school training methods and many dog owners just scream “no” all day long! I am not saying we need to be mean to our dogs or yell at them. I am simply saying that I want my dog to be given information, feedback, in all situations. If my dog can learn “yes” means you made the right decision or you did the right thing, then I don’t see why my dog can’t learn “you made a mistake”. In my opinion, providing my dog with information and feedback is very kind regardless if it is being reinforced and praised or being given feedback that they made a mistake.
Journey at agility practice
What I Have Learned
I started realizing providing feedback to my dog was important through agility and later on in sheep herding. In these fast paced sports, it is very important to let your dog know when they made a mistake for a few reasons. Firstly, if your dog is a working or sport line dog like mine are, when their in the zone, in drive and their head is in the game, you need to be able to communicate very clearly to your dog or else your dog or someone else could get hurt. For example, when Journey and I are practicing agility and he jumps over a jump and his foot knocks over the jump bar, points could be deducted or he could be disqualified from that particular run in a actual competition. Or when he is running up the A-frame, if he decides to get to much air, his back end could either go up as he lands (which has occurred), which could cause an injury. For his safety, he needs to know he made a mistake and this is where I would say “nope”, which is the word I use to let him know he made a mistake. We would then try again, and if correct, he gets rewarded with his tug toy. I feel that just withholding the reward and walking away or letting a dog figure it out is not always enough. In fact, I found with Journey, that just walking away without providing information when he made a mistake was confusing, which ultimately was aversive to him. Now, does that mean he loves when I tell him “nope”? No, it does not. He doesn’t like making mistakes, but it at least I am able to communicate to him and provide him with information so that he can learn and have success the next time.
Lets take an employee and the boss. If the employee makes a mistake, the boss will let the employee know so that they can do it correctly the next time. Now, I know someone might be thinking, “I had a boss who would yell at me and make me feel uncomfortable if I made a mistake.” My response to this is that it depends on how you provide information. I have had bosses who become assholes when they see a mistake, and I have also had bosses who use the situation as a teachable moment so that I can do better next time. The same is true for me when training a dog. I want it to become a teachable moment so that the dog has success the next time.
I recently had a trainer tell me that if their teacher constantly told them they were wrong, they would get another teacher. I totally agree 100%! BUT, I am not saying to tell your dog they are wrong all the time. In fact, if the dog is wrong all the time, well, then you need to stop, take a step back and observe why mistakes are occurring. Is it that the information is not clear to the dog? Or is the criteria to difficult for the dog? Maybe something in the environment is causing a problem? Or maybe the person training is doing something that is causing the dog to respond a certain way? Once you find your answer, adjust as needed.
As a life long student what I can tell you is that EVERY SINGLE LEARNER LEARNS DIFFERENTLY! Some students, employees and dogs become more stressed and anxious when they need to guess and would prefer being told they made a mistake, whereas others might become more stressed and anxious when told they made a mistake. Being aversive is NOT what you personally feel, it is what the learner FEELS is personally aversive to them. I can tell you as someone who has learning disabilities, it is more stressful for me if I am not told I made a mistake. I want information, I want to be given feedback when I am right and when I am wrong so that I know. And if I am wrong, I don’t want to be yelled at and I don’t want to guess. I want to be told straight forward, clear information. As someone who struggles to learn and break things down, this is very important for me.
Teaching My Clients
Just like training a dog, training dog owners needs to be individualized. Some dog owners over use “no”. They may have watched a TV show or remember taking a training class with a dog they had years ago where they were taught to tell the dog “no” for every damn thing! With these clients I will usually try to stop them from using “no” because they need to start teaching their dog what they actually want from him. If it is to difficult for the client, then I will allow them to use a new word in a specific context so that it is clear feedback to the dog. Furthermore, if the client is constantly yelling at the dog, and they cannot get away from telling the dog “no”, we change the word to something like “oops” or “try again” so that the client is not yelling at the dog anymore and again, the word would be used in a specific context to provide clear feedback.
For clients who are not using “no”, perfect! If needed, we then introduce a word such as “nope”, “sorry”, “oops”, “try again” etc. based on the dog, the issues and the context. I always make sure to explain and teach the client how to use the word, how not to use the word and what situations/context the word can be used it for teaching and clarity purposes.