Ask just about any dog trainer or veterinarian and they’ll tell you reward-based training is best for canines. It makes sense. Treats are better incentives than a pat on the head (or nothing at all). Of course, all dogs are unique and it’s wise to explore a variety of methods to see which ones your pet responds to best. Either way, establishing healthy obedience practices and firm commands early on is critical to lifelong good behavior. Unfortunately, there are some words and phrases that come naturally to us as people but are ineffective for dogs. We rounded up five things not to say to your dog, according to real trainers and veterinarians.
Remember: Your dog is not a person. Remind yourself of this as often as possible. (Psst: Your dog is not a person.) She might seem like she’s a person! She can certainly be your favorite companion! But she is not a person. She is a dog. This means you need to communicate in a way that allows her to absorb the information and practice what you preach.
Why it’s problematic: Saying, “No,” to your dog is too vague. Which behavior are you trying to stop? Urban Dog Training in Brisbane uses the example of a dog quietly chewing a shoe. “No” could be referring to the lack of barking, the chewing or the spot where your dog is sitting. It’s impossible for your dog to distinguish which one you mean. More importantly, the word “no” doesn’t tell your dog what you want her to do instead. Alternatively, commands like “drop it,” or “sit,” identify a specific behavior your dog can exhibit instead of what she’s doing. Urban Dog Training adds that saying “no” can reinforce bad behavior because you are giving the dog attention—even if it’s bad attention.
2. Yelling (in general)
Why it’s problematic: Animal Behavior College notes dogs do not have the same logic and reasoning capabilities that humans do. Shouting or yelling at your dog can fill them with fear—of you, of their environment, of certain behaviors—and even lead to reactive behavior. Again, yelling and scolding in an angry tone is too vague. Screaming at your dog won’t prevent her from chewing the shoe next time. She’ll simply do it where you can’t see her. Studies have shown canines can actually become pessimistic when treated this way.
3. “Come!” (When it’s bad news)
Why it’s problematic: Calling your dog to “come” when it’s time for a bath, a trip to the vet or any other unpleasant experience links that command with, well, an unpleasant experience. It’s like the boy who cried wolf: If you trick your dog too many times into thinking she’s getting a treat when really she’s about to have her anal glands expressed, she’ll stop coming when she’s called. She may not even trust other commands you throw around. Instead, use reward-based training when establishing these practices. Vet trips can be associated with a special treat, like doggy ice cream. Baths can become an opportunity for a peanut butter-filled Kong toy. But don’t trick her.
4. “Down” (When your dog learned “drop”)
Why it’s problematic: So you’re trying to communicate to Roxy to drop the matchbox from her mouth. But in the chaos of the moment, you say “down,” as in, “put it down!” Even it’s not intentional, sending mixed signals isn’t great practice. Canine Perspectives, a notable dog training and daycare facility in Chicago, says providing structure and consistency is key to building good habits. Canines thrive on routine and enjoy having guidelines to know what to do in new situations. Once you teach a command, use it regularly and in as many different locations as possible. This is called proofing; it ensures your dog remembers and obeys commands in any situation and can be lifesaving. If your dog eats something poisonous on a walk, she better be able to obey “drop it!” outside the home. Because of their affinity for rules, don’t mix up commands on them. Sure, to us the words “down” and “drop” mean pretty much the same thing. To dogs? It’s very confusing.
Why it’s problematic: On the flip side, ignoring problem behavior is equally detrimental. It may work at home in a controlled environment, but Dr. Jennifer L. Summerville, DVM, says the instant your dog receives any type of reward for that behavior, ignoring it no longer proves effective. Plus, in the real world, other people probably won’t be able to ignore behavior like jumping, chewing or whining. Teaching your dog specific commands (sit, stay, drop it, down) will help you redirect problem behavior and help your dog understand what it is you’d like them to do.