I have a neighbor who says no to his dog Buddy a lot. Buddy seems like a nice doggie, but he has some bad habits, the worst of which is jumping up on the fence that connects my yard to his. Buddy is a big, strong pitbull, so this has resulted in some planks from our old fence falling down. Buddy’s owner’s response each time Buddy does this is to yell “no.” Buddy keeps doing it over and over, however. The word no is not phasing him. Yet, on my side of the fence, I can get my dogs to stop barking at Buddy within seconds.

What’s the difference? I don’t say no.

Let me explain.

Years ago, my older dog Daisy was enrolled in an agility class. Daisy was definitely the class clown. Whenever it was our turn to go off leash, she’d run around the ring, go up to her buddies, and – if we were outside – look for bunnies to chase. And I made the worst rookie mistake. I said no. I would get exasperated. My tone said “you’re in trouble.”

Well, this was not motivational for Daisy to respond to me. In fact, the more I yelled, the more she tuned me out. So, I had a talk with the agility instructor. Agility training is based on positive reinforcement. If the dog does what you want, they get it a treat. If they mess up or don’t do what they were asked, you ignore it and try again. The instructor suggested that I try more positive reinforcement with Daisy.

That may have been the last time I said no to a dog. I learned that Daisy was eager to please, she just needed me to speak to her in a different language – affection, affirmation that she was a “good girl” and treats.

That’s all well and good, you may be thinking, but how do you actually use positive reinforcement to deter a dog from engaging in bad or unwanted behaviors?

The Art of Distraction

Let’s illustrate how positive reinforcement works with a real life example. My dogs love to bark at Buddy. I don’t want them to bark at Buddy because it riles him up and he jumps on the fence and breaks it. So instead, when I see them getting ready to bark (or even if they’ve already started) I get treats and we train instead. They don’t think twice about leaving the barking match, because I offer tasty treats. I am effectively distracting them from the bad behavior and giving them a reward for positive behaviors instead. I’m not punishing bad behavior and I’m not saying no. I’m also not rewarding bad behavior (ie the barking). They only get the treats after responding to a command like “sit” or “touch.” This is very important, because you don’t want your dog to associate the bad behavior with treats.

At first, it was about 50/50 on whether my dogs would continue barking for a minute when I got the treats out. But with time they started to learn that receiving a treat was more rewarding than barking at Buddy. So now, even if I don’t have the treats, they’ll look at me before they start barking. Immediately, I go to get a treat, because they’ve made the right decision. I’ll say “good come” and go into a simple command like sit.

This method is really good on walks too. If you have a dog that lunges at squirrels, cats or other dogs, you can do a mini training session to distract them from these temptations. Pretty soon, they’ll look to you and won’t even care about those animals. You’ve effectively wiped out the need for the word no in your life. Some of my favorite easy training behaviors to distract your dog away from an undesirable activity are “touch,” “sit” and “watch.”

Try positive reinforcement on your own and watch the amazing changes in your dog. Be patient, and remember those treats. As time goes on, your dog will require fewer and fewer treats to produce the same behaviors!