“No” Is Not a Behavior . . . But That’s Not the Problem with Saying It

Lewis, a brown and white dog, is lying on a leather couch holding a snuffle mat between his paws. He is looking at the camera.

I don’t think this post is going to win a popularity contest, but here goes anyway. I can’t get it off my mind.

Trainers regularly work hard to teach people alternatives to endlessly saying “No!” to their dogs. Even those of us who know the pitfalls of the habit lapse into it from time to time.

But I seem to disagree with many others about what exactly those pitfalls are.

Here’s why I think yelling “No!” is a bad idea: most people who are doing it haven’t taught it as a cue for a behavior trained with positive reinforcement. It ends up as an aversive method and carries all the usual potential for fallout. It relies first on a startle response. If the dog habituates, then people escalate the aversives.

But that’s not the objection I usually hear.

The Common Objection to “No”

I read it again the other day, in a discussion advising someone who was dealing with an undesirable behavior by her dog. She had been telling her dog “No!” when he performed the behavior. Several people chimed in, pointing out two related things: “no” is not a behavior, and saying “No!” didn’t tell the dog what he should do.

Both true statements. But they point to a failure in training, not some magical property (or lack of property) of the word.

Eileen is sitting on a day bed reading a book about behavior. Her three dogs are with her, doing "naughty" things like pulling trash out of a wastebasket.
A moment when it might have been tempting to say, “No”

The statement that “no” doesn’t tell the dog what to do is also true for every single verbal cue we use—we have to teach the association. For instance, merely saying the phrase “turn around” doesn’t give the dog any information about what we want them to do, either. A cue and a behavior are two different things. We train the latter and associate it with the former.

R+ trainers commonly say two things that are contradictory.

  1. On one hand, we tell newbies any word can be a cue. This is true. “Lightbulb” can cue sit. “Resonate” can cue the dog to look at me. Trainers just have to remember them and be able to teach the dogs. Cues don’t even have to be words. A cue can be a hand on a doorknob, the sound of a car approaching, a time of day, or the odor of vinegar. This takes a while for most of us to comprehend, because the language aspect is typically much more salient to us humans than anything else. And we tend to backslide. We persistently mix up the meaning of the word with its function as a discriminative stimulus. I discuss this in my blog post, “Good Sit!”
  2. But then we also tell people that “no” is not a behavior. That’s also true, but not really relevant. When we say “sit,” “down,” or “lightbulb,” those aren’t behaviors either when they come out of our mouths. They are cues. “No” is not a behavior, but it doesn’t have to be. It just needs to indicate reinforcement is available for a behavior. We don’t say that a hand on a doorknob or the smell of vinegar can’t be cues because they aren’t dog behaviors.

Singling out “no” as uniquely meaningless isn’t logical.

The Real Problem with No

Eileen is sitting in a chair outdoors. Her young dog Clara has put her head under the arm of the chair and is prodding Eileen's breast.
A moment when I definitely said something suboptimal

I believe the root problem with “no” is that people don’t train it; the word doesn’t point to a behavior that will be followed with positive reinforcement. And if saying it doesn’t successfully interrupt the dog, people usually escalate. So “No!” comes to predict aversive conditions: nagging, yelling, stomping, clapping, or even physical aversives like hitting.

Dog trainers rightly advise their clients to start over and use another word if they are going to teach a “leave-it” or an interrupter, because most of us rarely say the word “no” to dogs nicely.

But we can. I have a friend who practiced for ages to use “no” as her leave-it cue for her service dog so she could say it in a pleasant and neutral tone of voice.

When I Yelled “No!”

Lewis, a brown and white dog, is on his hind legs, sniffing a container full of food on a counter.
A reenactment of Lewis’ countersurfing with a tempting but safe food

Believe it or not, I yelled “No!” on the same day I started this article, right after I was pondering this whole thing.

I make a baked dessert out of oatmeal, egg whites, almond butter, dried cranberries, and dark chocolate. A lot of dark chocolate. I warmed a piece of it that night on a plate and put it on the counter. You know what’s coming. I turned around and Lewis was countersurfing. He had his nose up, sniffing the dessert, about to take a bite.

Even though I have taught Lewis a leave-it cue, I panicked, yelled “NO!” and clapped my hands. I did exactly what I’ve been describing. I yelled, hoping to startle him, and when that didn’t work instantly, I clapped, with the same goal.

What did Lewis do?

He didn’t cringe or cower or run away. He slid slowly down from the counter and calmly came to me, expecting a treat. I gave him a handful, then I removed the dessert from his reach.

I haven’t trained the word “no” as a cue, but I’ve trained several other words that function to interrupt, and he is accustomed in particular to being called away from the counter. So to him, it didn’t matter what I said, nor, apparently, how I said it. Lewis associated a behavior (reorienting to me) with my saying “No!” because of the foundation of training we already had.

I taught him “Pas” (leave it), “Excuse me,” (put all four paws on the ground), and “Lewis” in a high, singsong tone (come here). None of those words or phrases “was a behavior” when he first heard them either, but now they signify good stuff if he performs the behavior I’ve associated with them. And by generalization, so did the “no.”

I used to train “Hey!” I carefully conditioned it to predict great things for dogs who come to me, since that was what usually came out of my mouth when I panicked about something that affected a dog. I even practiced it in an irritated tone, so the good reinforcer hopefully counterconditioned my cranky tone. You can see a demo here. I should do this with Lewis as well.

There is a lesson to be learned here. The positive reinforcement-taught cue for Lewis to get down from the counter is: “The lady says something while I have my feet up on the counter.” Yes, any word can be a cue, but often it’s not the word at all. We humans are the ones stuck focusing on the words.

And of course, I’m not suggesting that yelling “No!” to our dogs is a good thing. I’ve delineated the problem with it already. It worked out for me in that instant without fallout, but only because it resembled real training I had done. We might not have been so lucky. It would have been safer if I’d come out with one of my trained cues. I need to practice more, or maybe I should condition “No!” as well as “Hey!”.

Not Only a Semantic Argument

Zani, a small black and rust hound mix, is lying on a mat looking up at the camera. There is a big pile of pieces of something she has ripped up in front of her.
I don’t think I ever said “No!” to Zani

I thought hard before publishing this. It may give people the false impression that I am supporting yelling “No!”. I’m not! Or it may seem pointlessly picky. Maybe.

But my motivation is practical. Focusing on the word “no” and what it means or doesn’t mean feeds into the idea that cues drive behavior. If we center our argument on the word “no” not being a behavior, we are very close to implying that words like “sit” and “down” are behaviors. And this can strengthen our unconscious tendency to believe that dogs automatically understand language the way we do.

That’s the downside of saying, “No is not a behavior.” It adds to the confusion about words that are both cues and verbal descriptions of behaviors. Sometimes cues may describe behaviors, but it’s not necessary that they do.

I understand that the statements people make about “no” that bother me are shortcuts. Trainers don’t usually give a lecture on discriminative stimuli when first introducing people to R+ methods. And it’s true that people yelling “No!” are not usually thinking of what they want the dog to do; they are thinking of what they want the dog to stop doing. So it’s great to introduce the concept of training with positive reinforcement and get people thinking about building incompatible behaviors instead of repeatedly reacting in the moment.

I’m not a pro trainer; I don’t work with humans training their dogs every day. If telling people that “no doesn’t tell the dog what to do” helps most of them break the habit, then great.

But I bet there are others like me who eventually want to understand this stuff about cues a little better, and the claims about “no” can slow that down. I know, because it’s taken me 10 years to unravel even a little of it for myself.

Related Posts

Copyright 2022 Eileen Anderson

24 thoughts on ““No” Is Not a Behavior . . . But That’s Not the Problem with Saying It

  1. I’m a pro trainer and I sometimes teach “no” as the “leave it” verbal cue. We talk about the tone of voice that you need to say it in – the same tone we practiced. 🙂

    I find that people can say both “leave it” and “no” pretty harshly when stressed, so my preference is the word “off,” but I allow clients to choose the word after explaining about tone.

    1. Oooh, very good point, Constance. I have certainly heard some snarly Leave-its from people! As I mentioned, when I’m startled, I yell, “Hey!” Conditioning it was a good thing. I need to do that (and “Not!” apparently) for Lewis.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. This is a great article Eileen. It highlights the issue of cross species communication between our verbal, visual selves and our four legged scenting, movement responsive pets. My wonderful English teacher mother-in-law used to say “Communication is about not being MISunderstood” and I think that’s what you are trying to say. I’d hate for clients to feel bad about performing the natural human behaviour of blurting out “no” in a fraught situation to stop a potential disaster. And to me, that’s fine as long as we keep reinforcing any and every positive response from the dog. Perform, review, refine!

    1. Very good points, Carol. And right, I certainly don’t want to be chiding people for saying “No.” We are all on a journey to do better.


  3. Fabulous clear thinking as ever. Helping to debunk some of the pat explanations that get repeated without thought.

  4. Yes, it’s true, trainers/owners need to practice for panic-inducing situations too! And you’re completely right that ‘No is not a behavior’ and neither is any other word without training as a cue. However, when confronting owners who chant, “No! No! No!” at their dogs (esp. puppies), ‘No is not a behavior’ is a pithy way to introduce the revolutionary (to some) idea that you teach dogs What to Do (to earn reinforcement) and plant the seed for future reward-based training. As the saying goes, Truth is the first casualty in war…

    1. Natalie, I agree with you. I think it’s a fine first start. And probably in most cases it’s all you need to get some really good points across. But if not, it’s adjustable later, depending on how interested the client is.


  5. I also believe “just saying no” keeps us humans in reactive rather than responsive mode. For me, the only time I say/shoot “No!” I am propelled to do so by an abundance of “feelings” (fear, panic, frustration, anger, feeling clueless or like an inept trainer… fill in the blank), rather than any sort of rational or informed training strategy. If I hear myself say NO!, I use that as a big clue to stop and (quickly!) figure out a more effective way to get what I want from the animal. In short: shouting NO doesn’t help the trainer’s headspace, either.

    1. Betsy, that’s a really great point about using it for self-monitoring. I know with Lewis I set out at the very beginning teaching various interrupters positively. When I find myself drifting away into “No-ville,” I need to retrain. Not him, myself. (But he comes along for the ride!)


  6. Great topic. Maybe a little picky. : ) However, while “no” is not a behavior (unless you use it to mean “come to me” which is really not what people do), it is also not even a CUE for a SPECIFIC behavior . “Sit” and “down” do describe specific behaviors. I actually wrote a blog post related to this, which includes one of my pet peeves: “No bark/No jump/No bite”.
    I really love your related post “Good Sit”. I thought saying that was weird even when I was a beginning trainer! I also seem to have a problem with “leave it”, mostly because people don’t teach it, they just yell it. An alternate cue I prefer is “walk away”. It really means the same thing (in our minds) but I think it encourages the human to teach the dog something more concrete to do.

    1. And I like your blog, especially the bits about “No bark!” etc. I was just thinking about writing about that, but you already did.

      And yep, leave-it is quite the can of worms. I like “walk away”!


  7. On the whole, I agree with you. I hope you don’t mind me getting nitpicky on the details. If that sort of thing annoys you, let me know: I’ll stop writing replies like this.

    I’m going to argue that “no” is neither a cue nor a behavior for a dog. It’s something visual that can be used as a discriminative stimulus for a human or a pigeon, but that a dog’s eye cannot see clearly enough for it to work as a cue.

    For a subset of humans, it symbolizes a set of vocalizations. It is a set, for the phonemes can be sung, whispered, shouted, etc. Because this set of vocalizations can be symbolized just as well with “know”/”Know”, I’m going to do so for the rest of the reply. “Know” can indeed be used as an auditory discriminative stimulus for a dog, provided it is trained as such. It could potentially be paired with any behavior one can train a dog to do, just as the set of vocalizations visually symbolized by “sit” can be paired with any behavior.

    Of course, humans will have to refrain from using these sounds to communicate with other humans in their dog’s presence or provide an additional discriminative stimulus to let the dog know when they are meant as a cue for them. As this is true for both “know” and “sit”, they work equally well.

    The thing is, when people talk about teaching “sit” to a dog, they don’t mean the visual, the set of phonemes symbolized by it, or even the behavior associated with it. They mean putting this specific behavior (or more precisely: one of several, closely related behaviors) on cue. Likewise, when they talk about saying “know” to a dog, they don’t mean this set of vocalizations, they mean a concept I will call “no”. And this concept is problematic in a way the behavior “sit” isn’t.

    It’s problematic in that it means two incompatible things, both of which are problematic in and of themselves.

    The first meaning is “stop what you are doing.” The thing is, everyone is always doing multiple things at once, and it isn’t always clear which behavior is supposed to be ceased. Because the picture of Lewis is conveniently nearby, I’ll use it as an example. In it, he is looking at the food, holding his ears forward, pressing his lips together, holding his whiskers forward, raising his eyebrows, holding his head within a few inches of the food, standing with his hind feet on the wood floor, supporting himself with his right paw on the counter, holding his left paw in the air (or resting it on a stool?), and presumably breathing. If you had meant “no” in this sense, which of these would he have needed to change and how? Open his mouth? Stop breathing? Remove his hind feet from the wood floor? Decrease the distance to the food? Clearly he understood what you meant, but not every dog is going to guess correctly. And without clear training, it will always be a guess.

    The other meaning is “don’t do whatever I think you’re planning on doing.” For example, a dog will be standing quietly next to their human, wagging their tail slowly, breathing evenly, looking at another dog with soft eyes, gently closed lips, and their body weight fairly evenly distributed. Their human repeated says “no.” In this context, the human doesn’t take issue with any of the presented behaviors, just with the behaviors they think are about to happen: lunging toward the other dog and barking at them. But if the dog managed to learn the first definition, they would be forced to come to the conclusion that lunging and barking is the preferred behavior – especially because many humans get so busy holding their dog back that they stop saying “no” the second it starts. On the other hand, let’s say they figure out that their human meant “keep on doing whatever you’re currently doing” in this situation. Then they would think they should continue propping themselves up on the counter and stare at the food in the first situation.

    Of course that whole mess can be avoided if the cue “know” means a specific behavior that will nicely as an alternate behavior, no matter what the dog is currently doing and in what situation they are in. Good luck with finding one. A recall often works, but not always. And if a recall is what you’re looking for, I’m not sure that there’s much benefit of teaching multiple sets of vocalizations as cues for the same behavior. After all, you have less training time per cue. Of course, you can use “know” as the only verbal cue for it – just be aware that people are going to look at you kind of strange.

    (Mind you, I default back to using an angry tone of voice and certain words as an aversive to interrupt certain behaviors myself. The thing is, it’s been positively reinforced by changes in my dog’s behavior fairly often whereas alternative behaviors on my part haven’t been nearly as well reinforced by this particular dog. Part of the problem is that they’re not trained to fluency, and so I forget about them in the heat of the moment (I have not generalized them to those emotional states). When I don’t even try a different approach, he can’t reinforce me for it. Every reinforced repetition makes extinction even harder – and yelling while angry can be self-reinforcing. Additionally, I often don’t know of a reinforcer will work for him in such situations, so can’t reinforce him even when I do remember to use a cue and he follows through on it. That makes me hesitant to give a cue. When I don’t even intellectually know of an alternative behavior for myself, it’s even harder to not fall into bad habits. Of course, this doesn’t excuse my behavior, just explains it.)

    1. Hi Martin,
      Your reply made me think! Picky is always good (for me, anyway) when it’s in the service of furthering learning.

      It took me a while to understand that your original comment about “no” is that it is marks on a page or pixels on a computer, right? Either that or I missed your point. But if you are out-picky-ing me there, great!

      I agree that my intent is to talk about a set of phonemes that can be used as an auditory cue.

      I find your distinction between “know” and “sit” and “down” defensible, but only when we are assuming English. Which is a fair assumption (I’m not playing gotcha), but the fact remains that words we use as auditory cues don’t have to have anything to do with the behavior we attach them to. Also (tangent), I believe “know” shares that same lack of specificity with “leave it” as well. The way I learned to teach leave it with positive reinforcement and a bit too much extinction was actually asking for a dead man behavior: same as “know.” Do anything but “that,” although in the case of leave it, “that” is probably a tad more obvious to the dog as to what behavior should be left. And then later, the behavior that the dog performs instead of grabbing whatever they were approaching can actually become an undesirable behavior, i.e., a service dog who backs away from food on the ground instead of walking on by it. Oh, this relates exactly to your last paragraph.

      Your comments have taken me down a different road than maybe you intended, and that’s the difference between dogs (and their ability of figuring us out) and most other animals. The reason I’m going to now say that the verbal cue “No” isn’t necessarily a discriminative stimulus is that the first time an animal hears it (any animal), it’s just a stimulus. If yelled loudly and suddenly enough, it can evoke the startle reflex with most mammals. I may amend my post about that, so thanks for prompting that thought.

      I agree that “know” doesn’t specify which behavior to stop, but I think that startle reflex can develop into a backing away from the object, or, if the human follows up with a moderate to harsh aversive, getting away from the human. Dogs, bless them, tend to figure out pretty fast. And although it doesn’t accomplish what is most humans’ true goal, that the dog stop doing that behavior and also never do it again, it interrupts the dog just successfully enough that people are reinforced and keep doing it.

      The cue I generally use with Lewis on the counter really was not trained as a “leave food alone” cue. I trained paired behaviors: what’s usually called “paws up,” and “off” or “four on the floor.” So Lewis’ usual cue means get your paws off the elevated surface and put them on the ground. We use it in other contexts. But unless the food is already in his mouth, it generally gets him away from the food. (I sound like an idiot who leaves food out all the time. I’m not, but it only takes a couple of times. Most of the time, Lewis is scouting and there is nothing in reach. Any form of paper is also highly desirable!)

      I’m all in with your last paragraph. There isn’t one behavior for “know.”

      This isn’t my clearest writing as I’m in a hurry, but I’ve thought a lot about and enjoyed your comment.


      1. Yes, I was talking about the pixels in that paragraph.

        I would argue that while the cue “know” and the cue “leave it” are certainly different, they tend to mean the same thing. Obviously that isn’t necessarily the case as cues can be arbitrary. Personally, I used to use “know” not as a cue, but as no-reward marker with my last dog in the context of her getting her cues mixed up and offering a different behavior than the one I asked for. (It was said in a quiet, friendly tone of voice.)

        But when people talk about cues, they tend to match a certain meaning with them. I’ve seen both “leave it” and “no” taught in several different ways – and there’s an almost perfect overlap. For example, I’ve seen the following methods for both:

        – Simply saying the word(s) in a stern voice. Several sources claim that the meaning will be obvious from your tone of voice, so no additional training is necessary.
        – Putting a treat in an open hand, then closing it when the dog tries to eat it. When the dog does anything else besides trying to eat the treat, give a different (possibly better) treat with your other hand.
        – Feed the dog several treats. Then display a treat in your open hand while saying the word(s) in a stern voice. Proceed like the previous method.

        I know I’ve read others for both, but I can’t think of them right this moment. At least one method doesn’t even set up her dog to fail.

        In daily life, they are also often used the same way. “Leave it” doesn’t always mean “don’t eat that particular food item,” but can mean “Don’t even think of continuing down that fallen tree trunk and jumping down on the wrong side of the ex pen so you can go through the hole that the root ball left under the fence and visit the neighbor’s yard!” (I hope you don’t mind me quoting you :P) Plenty of other people would have said “no” in both contexts.

        With said previous dog, I often just said her name. She could only differentiate cues for 5-10 minutes at a time, but was great at figuring out what I wanted in daily life based on context. That allowed me to get lazy. My present dog isn’t like that; I actually have to figure out myself what I want and which cue is attached to said behavior. If I’ve trained said behavior well enough and the distractions aren’t too strong, giving the specific cue will generally work.

        At first, I used the spelling “know” to differentiate the cue from the concept. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s actually the right spelling for the concept. It’s shorthand for “Know what it is that I do and do not want you to do, and then act accordingly.” For some dogs, this actually does work. That doesn’t make it fair.

        1. More good thoughts!

          A fair number of people are teaching a leave-it-ish behavior by training cues for different kinds of food getting behavior (go chase that food, wait for me to come to you, etc.) as initial behaviors, then putting them on stimulus control. That’s a method that’s not focused on having to correct errors. This time with Lewis I faded food in with eye contact practice, so, say, a small plate of food became a cue to look at me. Few errors, and correcting was not the focus. Over time we can did other things besides eye contact, so a plate of food on the ground became a cue to focus on training, not specifically eye contact. (I’m leaving out some steps.)

          My wise teacher doesn’t teach leave it. She says she can get most necessary home behaviors with a strong down, stay, and come.

          I like your semantic points about “know”!


  8. Is “stop” a behaviour? I see No as stop what you are doing. So “No” is an interrupter – stop what you (dog) are doing then you (human) go get treats. I think tone is important but we are human, anger/frustration/fear is going to happen so unless your dog is super fearful maybe the action that follows can compensate for tone? I know I can’t meet the standards of always watching what I say/how I say it, but I’m just a dog parent.

    1. Selina, Martin has made some good points about “stop what?” but I think if stop is combined with a “come away from that” it can work, and it can be trained positively. I think it’s great that you are aware of your tone. None of us is perfect, but we can always work on it!

  9. Hi, my question would be how do you otherwise reduce or suppress the occurrence of the counter surfing behaviour ?

    1. Mark, it’s hard. Once it happens, and the dog gets something, it is very, very hard to prevent in the future. It needs complete consistency on the part of the whole human household.

      The best way is to set up the environment to prevent it from happening in the first place. I did this successfully with two out of three of my former dogs, Summer and Clara. Pretty good job with Zani, too, although I shot myself in the foot a little by feeding her her meals close to the kitchen counters. I got Clara as a puppy, she is taller than Lewis and could easily countersurf, and never has in her life. She has “paws up” behavior on cue and even practiced walking in that position during physical therapy, so she is perfectly capable. Part of her lack of countersurfing was probably genetics (how she’s built, her energy level), but part of it was how I set things up.

      Give the dog somewhere to be either outside the kitchen or in a corner that’s out of the way and not near the counters. Reinforce them mightily for hanging out on their mat while you do things in the kitchen. Also, keep the kitchen counters absolutely clear–nothing within reach. Not just food, but objects, too. You can add in some boundary training if you want. But basically build a habit of your dog doing something completely different when the counters are accessible. Crumbs will reinforce countersurfing, silverware will, wrappers will, and I’m pretty sure, for Lewis that even just being able to look around up there is reinforcing. Sigh.

      Lewis came with countersurfing already installed, and my current kitchen area is not a good one for putting down multiple mats for the dogs to lie on. So I do the best I can and keep things out of reach, but I don’t know that I can reduce the behavior down much further than I already have.

      On the other hand, he never touches my nightstand, which has interesting things on it. Pens, books, lotion, electronic devices, wooden charging platform, etc. Food once in a while. From Day One, I taught him a place to sleep on the bed and reinforced that both with a little food and it was also, of course, self-reinforcing. I was generally between him and the nightstand, so he just never developed the habit of exploring it. And he spends very little time in my bedroom without me in there. It’s a good comparison of what can happen if you prevent the habit in the first place and if you don’t/can’t.

      If you want better instructions, go to YouTube and search “kikopup preventing countersurfing”. Kikopup (Emily Larlham) has several good videos for both prevention and addressing countersurfing.



  10. Hi Eileen,

    Great blog … as always!

    I tell my training clients that “no” is just a word, and that it will have the meaning that we give it through training. As Constance describes above, we discuss the power of inflection and tone to be reinforcing or aversive, and I’ll suggest choosing a word or phrase that is hard to say harshly. In our house “no” or the more mellow “oops” simply means “reorient to me and await further instructions (a new cue)”.

    In thinking through what I *really* say or do in “no” or “leave it” situations with my own dogs, I generally cue a “wait”—a pause in place that’s been trained consistently. This gives me the opportunity to call them to me for reinforcement, to go to them, or cue an alternative behavior.


    1. Marnie,
      Yay, no is just a word! I like that approach.

      And I think “wait” covers a lot of ground for these situations, too. Thanks for commenting!


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