Does Your Dog Tell You “No”?

Do you listen to him?

Rio lip licks – Is the camera stressing you out?

How do you get him to say “yes” to things that might need to be done?

Clicker Expo St. Louis 2018 – I was at a presentation by Eva Bertilsson, Emelie Johnson Vegh, and Peggy Hogan and this one line sticks out to me, “in order to hear more ‘yes’, start listening to smaller no’s.” On the surface, it might not make sense. But in practice it makes all the difference. Listening to small “no’s” is one of the bases of trust.

A dog who trusts you to listen to his ‘small no’s’ is the dog who turns his head from you and yawns rather than curls his lip, snarls, or snaps. Or maybe further up the ladder of aggression it is the dog who air snaps rather than grabs your arm.

People sometimes ask me, “if you stop when he pulls his paw away/gets up/jumps off the mat/fill in the blank __________, then aren’t you just teaching him to do more of that?” First of all we need to back up the plan and look at how to further break down criteria in order to keep him comfortable in order to have success. Secondly, and this is what I’m focusing on here, we don’t want our dogs thinking, “I need to speak louder in order to be heard.” This is especially important for procedures that might be scary or uncomfortable – things like nail trims, baths, grooming, restraint, or even just basic handling for some dogs.

So first we must learn to listen when our dogs ‘speak softly’. This is no small feat given that our languages have little overlap. Every dog is a little different (just like people and their language!) and context changes are very important (again, much like our language).

Some of my favorite books on the subject: Brenda Aloff – Canine Body Language A Photographic Guide, Turid Rugaas – On Talking Terms With Dogs: Calming Signals, Patricia McConnell – The Other End of the Leash

But let’s just run through some quick examples:

  • Head turn away
  • Stiffness or stillness
  • Yawning
  • Breathing changes – e.g. open mouth panting to closed mouth
  • Avoidance
  • Lip licks
  • Blinking
  • Ears pinned back (in general, changes in ear position)
  • Hiding
  • Owner ‘clinginess’
  • Whale eye (whites of eyes visible)
  • Sniffing the ground – ‘checking out’
  • Sudden scratching or self-grooming
  • Lowered body carriage/ position – ‘slinking’ behavior

Observe your dog – I think it was Patricia McConell who talked about the ‘laboratory of your living room’ – use this laboratory to make some observations and record some data about your own dog when he is relaxed/frightened/frustrated/excited. Sometimes it’s really hard to put a name to what they are feeling – how can we truly know? – but we can make observations about their behavior and how it fits within the context of their lives.

There are a couple places where Rio tells me “no.” A while back he had an injury to his declaw. Evidently it was very painful. I had him soak it in a Epsom salt solution to help with healing. Now I could have left him no choice; I could have just taken his foot and made a compress, restrained him and put it on. However, I thought there is a some chance we’ll have to deal with a foot injury again in his lifetime. I don’t want to add to his trauma and it would be awesome to end up with a behavior we could use again in the future should it be necessary.

I went back and made some videos of the pieces long after his foot was healed. It was useful to go back and revisit, but since the behavior was already known and he was not experiencing pain, I dropped the value of the treats back to plain old kibble (we used delicious canned food initially).

First, I used the process of shaping with the clicker and his long history with shaping (in addition to playing the ‘paws up’ game with anything and everything), to get him to step into an empty container in the kitchen. Then we generalized this behavior, taking it into other rooms.

Next, we took the empty container into the bathroom and put it into the bathtub. This was just to keep the whole soaking process from being super messy. Rio is not a huge fan of baths, but he will jump into the tub for me. (This is actually another place where choice is important to him, and listening to ‘no’ is important for me.)

So since writing this and taking the first two videos, Rio got a little sore between his toes and I decided it might be a bad idea to do the foot soak again. It was really small and it looks much better now, but I was able to take some video as we worked through it. Roscoe cameos. 


During the foot soak process, Rio got a pretty high rate of reinforcement for keeping his feet in the container in the bathtub – a little classical conditioning for you. At any point, he was free to take his feet out and even jump out of the tub and leave the room. A few times he choose to do this. I just waited for him to come back, hop back in and resume, which he did. It took him less than 30s to make that decision; he knows where the value is. I don’t know how painful his paw was; I have no way of knowing. I wanted to give him some control over the process rather than using force to get the job done.

With him, and for this, it worked really well, and ended up strengthening our relationship rather than becoming a battle and straining our bond. I know this is not always going to be possible; sometimes emergencies happen and we just need to get something done quickly. Restraint may be needed; choice may have to be removed. But whenever it is possible to take it slow, to work together, to listen to and respect our dogs when they tell us “no, please stop,” whenever it is possible to find a way to help our dogs feel comfortable and in control enough to say “yes,” it is the kindest course to take.

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