Yelling at My Dogs

The “yelling” question comes up regularly for positive reinforcement-based trainers. “Do you NEVER yell at your dogs? Of course you do! And that’s punishment, so you aren’t a ‘positive’ trainer after all. Gotcha!”

Or the converse. The people who insist that speaking “sternly” to their dogs carries no unpleasant associations and that’s it’s “just a cue.” Granted, speaking sternly to dogs doesn’t usually do much in the way of decreasing behavior. But it’s still not pleasant in the moment.

But you can make it pleasant and non-threatening—and effective for getting a dog’s attention. Here’s what I do.

Have I been yelling at these two dogs?
Don’t they look pathetic? Did I yell at them? See the bottom of the post for what this photo is really about.


I’m human. Even if I don’t intend to, sometimes I yell. I won’t argue that I can’t help it, but it would be very hard to change the behavior of yelling as a response to being startled. And it’s a functional response, so one that I might not want to try to get rid of (as difficult as that would be).

I have certainly done the “startled yell” at my dogs. If a dog is sitting right next to me and suddenly leaps up and barks in my ear, I am going to be startled and likely yell. Likewise, if I am tired and strung out (trigger stacking) and one of them does something that provokes me, let’s just say that I may not speak in my nicest voice.

Knowing that about myself, I took a simple action.


The word that generally comes out of my mouth when I’m startled or annoyed is, “Hey!” Given that, when any new dog comes into the household, I classically condition that word to predict great things. I pair my saying the word with a great treat.

Once the dog is learning that my saying “Hey!” predicts a treat, I raise the volume gradually, then raise the stress in my voice. The end result is that I can yell, “Hey!” in the meanest voice I can muster and my dogs turn to me or come running happily.

I do the same thing with each dog’s name. I say it in all different tones of voice, pairing it with something great.

I’m not a big yeller, but conditioning “Hey!” and the dog’s name seems to spread nicely to other things I might yell as well.

Total Recall

Thorough readers of my blog will have noticed by now that I have classically conditioned a fair number of things.

And yelling.

All of these things started off as classical conditioning, but, as is typical, the operant behaviors started piling on and getting reinforced. And they are good behaviors! Reorienting to me, even running to me when the event happens if the dog is a distance away. All these things that are classically conditioned potentially turn into recall cues/positive interrupters.

But we always need to think these things through. All these recall cues presuppose that the triggers will happen in situations where it is both desirable and safe for my dogs to come running to me. Frankly, I am rarely in situations where that would not be safe. Areas where my dogs might be off leash, however large, are generally enclosed or not in a busy area. However, there’s always that horrifying possibility that my dog might get loose and see me from across a busy street or a similar hazard. That’s the one type of situation when I don’t want my dog to come running to me. For that reason, I also teach my dogs a distance down by hand signal and vocal cue. It means to drop right where they are.

Here’s a post with a video where you can see us practicing: Safety behaviors: Down at a Distance and Recalls.

Positive Interrupter

Lots of people defend yelling at their dogs in a disciplinary way. They feel they need their dogs’ respect or need to convey to their dogs that what they are doing at times is “unacceptable.” But we need to be honest. If those methods work to interrupt and lessen (punish) behavior, it’s because there is a threat. Yelling by itself, beyond the startle effect, is not that potent of a punisher to many adult dogs. That’s why people who yell in an attempt to interrupt or change their dogs’ behavior tend to keep yelling and yelling.

What dog wants to come to someone who is mad and grumbly, or worse, likely to hurt them? What you typically get from “disciplinary” yelling is ambivalent behavior.  If you call them when angry they may come, but they will likely come creeping, or perhaps even grovel in place. (How many YouTube videos have we seen of that?)

How much better is it to have a cue that dogs respond to with delight? I’ll take a joyful reorientation anytime. Plus if I am actually mad, it gives me a moment to get ahold of myself as they run to me eagerly. And it’s pretty hard to stay mad at those happy little faces.

Some people call this kind of cue a “positive interrupter.”(Here is Emily Larlham’s tutorial on teaching it.) But just FYI, “positive interrupter” is not a behavior science term. A “positive interrupter” is just another cue that causes your dogs to reorient to you. No different from any other cue. Some people use their recall or “watch me” cue, some train a cue specific for interruption, and some let a cue develop out of classical conditioning, as I did.

If we let go of the idea of trying to prove to our dogs that they are being “bad” and look at how to interrupt the behavior, a positive interrupter is a great way to go.

Want to see what happens when I yell, “Hey!” at my dogs?

Link to the movie for email subscribers.

Matching Law

But won’t interrupting my dogs when they are doing an undesired behavior, then giving them a treat, indirectly reward those behaviors they are performing when interrupted? Won’t I get more obnoxious behavior? If that were the only time I reinforced my dogs’ behavior, I might have something to worry about. But my dogs earn reinforcers all day long doing things I like. And I catch them being good far more than I interrupt them doing stuff I don’t like. The Matching Law is on my side. I’m not going to have a huge upsurge of barking in my ear or fence running or bullying another dog. My dogs can get my attention and earn a treat a lot more easily than that!

Bottom Line

I can truly say that yelling is not a punishment, or even particularly unpleasant, for my dogs. If you condition yelling, it can be just another strange noise in their life that predicts good things.

Explanation of the Photo Above

Here’s the unedited original photo. I hadn’t yelled. I had given them broccoli, and they were extremely disappointed. I’m so mean!

Copyright 2016 Eileen Anderson

21 thoughts on “Yelling at My Dogs

  1. Eileen, I love this! It is such a silly, fun creative way to get your dogs used to those inevitable times when we yell.

  2. Thanks for the post. Positive interrupters is a new concept for me, what a great idea! Ironically, one of my dogs is crazy for broccoli (just the stems though lol) and would be very happy with that reward. Cute pups! 🙂

    1. Aw, thanks! Positive interrupters are great. So much nice than the other kind! Be sure and watch Emily Larlham’s tutorial if you haven’t already.

    2. I love broccoli stems. I cannot understand why they are not a favoured salad vegetable. You do need to de-bark them though. And leave the florets for those weird creatures who love bitter vegetables (like Brussels Sprouts, Asparagus and Turnip.

  3. Great way to train away something all of us humans can do once in awhile. I find your articles very inspiring and always right on target. Thank you for sharing.

  4. I have a dog that loves broccoli and other veggies too.

    As to positive interrupters years ago I was walking a dog I trained to listen off or on leash. I was 15-16 at the most and I had crossed and was going to a neighbors back yard when Kippur a shelter paused to sniff something when I heard a car coming screeching toward the blind curve right by us. I glanced up in shock and saw Kip just at the edge about to gallop across, I screamed Kip FREEZE making a stay hand signal, the car screeched past and disappeared and I was afraid to look, finally uncovered my eyes to see her standing frozen one paw up right at the edge where she was when I screamed to freeze. I called her with good girl dropping my hand down, and she galloped across jumping up on me before passing headed to the neighbors back yard.

    Whew good girl far from the untrainable dog her owners saw her as!
    We lived in a small suburban town and this was in the ’70s. I started training her when I found she chased cars!

    1. Oh gosh! What a blessing that you were able to do that! Thanks for telling that story. I’ve been thinking I really need to work more on my distance safety cue.

      1. Thanks, Kippur was a Sheltie by the way not a shelter ???? And I had never screamed anything at her or used the frantically thrown stay gesture before. Just was sure she was going to be hit by the car, small family community, no one went round blind curves like that!

        1. Wow! (I was guessing shelter dog. Sheltie is much more descriptive!) Sure glad it worked.

  5. I suppose though that shouting is as shouting does.
    We were always advised to NEVER speak harshly to our dogs, because dogs understand voice tone better than words.
    Yet when I listen to American trainers, on videos of themselves that they have posted, their harsh and growly “G-aw-aw-aw-d, J-ah-ah-ah-ah-b!” would really have my big tough dogs, who are used to being shouted at, cringing and wondering just what it was that they were in trouble for!

  6. Great post! I’ve had this on my list for a while to work on! Also, my dogs would be that disappointed in me had I given them broccoli, too! LOL! 😀

  7. Great post! I haven’t done it in a while, but I used to treat my dogs for “No!”. Not really for me but “No!” is what I very firmly say to unattended small children who are running towards my dogs.

    I’ve occasionally used it for adults as well. Telling an adult ‘no” normally just makes them more determined to pet my dog without permission
    But if I look at my dog while saying “no” when I see adults approaching, they seem to think that I’m disciplining my dog and they leave to give us space.

    1. Oh that’s clever! Somewhere I recall someone conditioning a similar comment so they could say it to their dog to pretend they were “disciplining” the dog when there was social pressure to do so. Of course if people see the treats that follow closely, the ruse might not be very effective.

  8. All the books say to train “Leave it” with a calm voice. I have often thought I should train it with a shout too, for emergencies. The only problem I could see with that is not having the panic in my voice during training.

    I was sure the article I read on Matching Law was from a link on your blog but can’t see it now. That has had me thinking very hard about shaping. What a fine line between not reinforcing too much during the shaping process and lumping.

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us. I have learned so much from you.

    1. You are so kind! I have learned from you as well.

      Yes, the article in your subsequent comment is one that I linked to. I touch on the Matching Law a lot but haven’t published either of the full length posts I have in the works about it. You are exactly right about shaping. The Matching Law tells us that in shaping we want to raise criteria as fast as the learner can comfortably do it, since lingering on earlier approximations makes them overly strong.

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.
%d bloggers like this: