The Difference Between ‘No’ and Other Words

By Daisy Moore

Yesterday, I saw a comment on a thread, which got me thinking. Many people know that dogs don’t speak our language, and so the only meaning of words is what we condition the word to mean. Many people are also aware that the use of the word ‘no’ is sometimes controversial. And sometimes, people say that ‘no’ means nothing to the dog. So, does that mean that we can teach a dog what ‘no’ means by conditioning it to mean something?

The problem here is what ‘no’ means to us humans. We use ‘no’ to mean ‘stop that’. And ‘stop that’ is actually really vague. I’m going to go off into a weird analogy here, but please bear with me.

You are in someone’s house; you don’t speak their language and they don’t speak yours. You are in their living room, sitting on the couch, drinking a cup of tea. They say ‘wibble’ to you, in a neutral tone of voice. You have no idea what ‘wibble’ means. You continue. They say ‘wibble’ to you in a harsh tone of voice with a displeased look on their face. OK, so you can use your rational, human brain to realise that they might not be happy about something. It might be totally unrelated to you, but let’s not overcomplicate things. They shout ‘wibble’, and you get off the sofa, put the cup of tea down, and get away from them. They stop shouting.

You have learnt (by being intimidated) that ‘wibble’ means they aren’t happy about something you’re doing, but you don’t know what!


Next time you’re in this room, you see a cup of tea near the sofa. You think, ‘OK the tea isn’t for me, I won’t touch it’. But the person still says ‘wibble’ at you. They don’t need to shout, now. You have worked out they aren’t pleased, and you want to avoid being shouted at again. But why are they saying ‘wibble’? You didn’t touch the tea. The person continues to say ‘wibble’, getting a little angry at your defiance. What on earth do they want? Eventually you decide just to get off the sofa and out of the room. The person looks pleased.

Next time you’re in this room, you decide to avoid the tea and the sofa. But you’re getting told ‘wibble’ again! Argh! What do they want????

There are two points to this long story:

  1. How do you attach meaning to the word? If I say ‘wibble’ at you with a neutral tone and neutral face, you have no idea that it means that I don’t like what you’re doing, and I want you to stop. So, to attach that meaning, the person in the story shouted. So, how would you attach the ‘stop that’ meaning to the word ‘wibble’?
  2. Using words like ‘no’ to mean ‘stop that’, doesn’t tell the dog what you do want them to do. The person in my story doesn’t have any idea why they’re being told ‘wibble’. They don’t mean to do the wrong thing, but they can’t work out what to do. They’re also frustrated, because they’re trying to do the right thing but keep getting it wrong, and there’s no guidance. The person saying ‘wibble’ is also frustrated because their guest keeps doing the wrong thing, even though they’ve been told not to!

The ‘wibble’ person doesn’t mind you on the sofa, and they actually made
the tea for you. They just don’t like shoes on their rug. But how could you
work that out with the information you were given?

The word ‘no’ isn’t an inherently bad thing. We are all human, so we tend to use words like humans do. Saying ‘no’ doesn’t make you a bad person! But if you’re using it to try to change your dog’s behaviour, there may be a much more efficient way to do that, which will be more enjoyable for you both! What do you want the dog to do instead?

The problem with ‘no’ isn’t the word itself, it’s how we use it. It’s the meaning that we attach to the word, how we do it, and how confusing it becomes when we say ‘no’ in so many different situations.