Stopping unwanted behavior, or how to effectively get your dog to Stop That! when they are doing something you want them to NOT be doing!
"No, No! Bad Dog!"
The most used and yet least useful word said to dogs is "No".
Most dogs haven't been taught what it means.
It's your tone of voice, body language, and facial expression that tell them you aren't happy unless they have been taught that "no" means to stop what they are doing. Test this by saying "No" in the same tone of voice you would say "row", "glow", or "Winnebego". If they stop then they do know the meaning of the word. If they don't stop, it's your anger or frustration they are responding to.
Some hear it so much they think it's their name.
When a word is repeated over and over and over again with no follow-through or instruction, it becomes background noise.
It gives them no information about what you want them to DO instead.
They might stop momentarily and then go back to what they were doing if they don't know what else to do. They need instruction.
It can make you part of the problem.
A lot of "unwanted behavior" comes from the dog's anxiety, stress, insecurity, or FEAR. Yelling "No!" at them in those circumstances makes you something else for them to worry about.
Instruct and Redirect
Use the cues they've been taught to instruct what to do instead of just "no".
"Leave It" to instruct them to remove their focus from whatever it is (something they shouldn't eat, cat, dog, person, object they should ignore). AND, move the food or object or move the dog so they don't go back.
"Off" to instruct them to take their paws off you. AND, tell them how to greet you instead (Sit, Stand, Spin) so they don't jump right back up.
"Quiet" or "Thank you, that's enough" to stop barking at something. AND, close the blinds, move the dog, turn their interest to a toy, do some Sits and Downs so they don't start right back up.
"Let's Go" or "Turn" if they are barking and lunging at another dog on leash. AND, move away from the dog as quickly as possible.
Not too soft, not too harsh... Just Right!
It will not break your dog to tell them you don't appreciate something they are doing. Dogs need rules and structure to confidently navigate their world, knowing exactly what is expected of them. You are your dog's Tour Guide through Life, and it is up to you to make sure your dog knows the way.
It isn't necessary to be domineering or harsh to be an effective leader. Think of the leaders whom you admire and what qualities they have. It's not likely the Dictator who has your respect. It's the person whom you WANT to follow because they are competent, confident, fair, and trustworthy. Be Andy Griffith, not Barney Fife.
Let the tone match the situation. Something really bad, like jumping on your dining room table and taking a dump, might need a strong "Wrong! Unacceptable!" Something milder like a puppy starting to pee on the carpet only needs an "Oopsie! Let's go Outside!" Once it's said, that's it. Don't keep going. If you need time to calm down, crate your dog, put them outside, or go for a walk yourself if you need to calm down.
Say you tell your barking dog to "Quiet" and go lay down, and they continue barking out the window. Do not keep repeating yourself. Get up, go to the window, and usher your dog away from it and to something else. Maybe they are too wound up to lay down, so give them a toy instead. There is no Armchair Quarterbacking with dogs. You have to get up and guide them sometimes.
Slow down and take a deep breath.
Dogs are less likely to do what we ask when we are annoyed or frustrated. It's weak energy. They recognize that you are not in control of your emotions and therefore not equipped to control their actions. Dogs respond best when you are calm and confident. (Andy vs. Barney).
Move your dog.
If your dog simply cannot calm themselves down, the situation is too overwhelming for them and they need to be removed from it. If they are not able to stop lunging and barking at other dogs nearby, get them farther away from the dogs (or the window or whatever it is that they are hyper-focused on).
Note: Grabbing a dog by the collar to move them is not recommended unless you have conditioned the dog to accept collar grabs. Up to 20% of dog bites from a family pet happen when a person tries to grab the dog by the collar. Dogs see it as threatening. Herd them like a Border Collie or use a slip lead.
If you didn't see it happen, it is too late.
Since we can't verbally explain to a dog that we are mad that they chewed a couch cushion, all they see is an angry person shaking a chew toy at them. We can't verbally explain that it's because they peed on the rug that we're upset, all they see is a person who gets angry about urine. This is why management of the environment is so important so the dog can't do these things when you're not there to interrupt it. If it happened when you weren't looking, it means they aren't ready for that much freedom yet.
Growling is Normal
Punishing a growl is like taking the batteries out of a smoke alarm! It is a good way to teach a dog to bite without warning.
Growling is part of normal canine communication, and it is meant as a way to AVOID conflict. A dog who doesn't growl when they are uncomfortable can be a dangerous dog. Overreacting to a growl can confuse your dog at the least and lead to aggressive behavior at worst. Overreacting in a fearful way can teach a dog that growling is a good way to control you. Overreacting in an aggressive way can teach a dog that nobody listens when they tell them they don't like something, so they will have to use their teeth to get the point across.
A real-life example with a happy ending...
I fostered a sweetheart Doberman whom we called "Skinny Little Doberman" because she was underweight and small for the breed. She was also meek, so it was a surprise when her adopters called to say that she was being aggressive to her new dad. She would growl at him, and he would stiffen up and slowly back away from her. I suggested that the next time she growled at him, laugh and ask her why she’s so grumpy. He did, and she never growled at him again. She was growling at him because she was intimidated by him. It worked! He backed off! So, she used it to her advantage. When he softened up toward her, she realized he wasn't a threat. Soon, she became a Daddy's Girl and the two are inseparable! If he had responded by bellowing "NO!" and throwing her to the ground, she would've learned that she was right to be worried about him. He is dangerous and can't be trusted. She might have bitten him in self-defense and lost her home.
Several of my foster dogs were defensive and growly at first. You could see the surprise on their faces when, instead of yelling "BAD DOG!" I acted shocked and offended and asked, "what on Earth is all that about?". They were expecting a fight because of their past experience. They immediately soften when someone FINALLY listens to them! That was often all it took to turn a "problem" dog into a cooperative pet.
Of course, it isn't always that easy. Not all growls are created equal. Some growls are dead serious and should be taken as such, especially if it's a dog you don't know well. You know that guttural growl that sounds like it comes from the pits of hell? That dog means business. Take steps to keep yourself safe. If you're not sure if your dog's growling is normal or a cause for concern, ask us for help.
Be on Your Dog's Side
I attended a workshop held by a police and military dog breeder and trainer. He breeds and trains dogs for narcotics and cadaver detection and for suspect apprehension using positive reinforcement methods. Something he said really stuck with me. For a police officer, your dog is your partner. And, like any other partner, they should know you have their back! That is true for your companion dog, too. Your dog should know that you are someone they can depend on.
NOT putting them in situations they can't handle.
If your dog is nervous with strangers or in crowds, don't take them to crowded places or force them to take food from strangers. It won't help them like crowds or strangers more. It's like throwing a kid into the deep end of the pool to teach them to swim.
NOT asking them to do things they can't do.
Laying down while you chat with a neighbor is a reasonable ask for a dog who's been taught a solid Down cue. Laying down while 5 other dogs run around and jump over the top of them is a pretty big ask! Stay within your dog's skill level.
NOT scolding them when they are reacting fearfully.
This one can be hard. We often feel pressured when our dog snarls and lunges at another dog. But, your dog is doing this because they are fearful or anxious about the other dog. Yelling NO! at them or jerking on their leash makes you part of the problem. Now, they have to worry about the other dog AND you!
NOT changing the rules.
It's not fair to your dog if you pet them sometimes when they put their paws on you and yell at them other times. It's either ok, or it isn't.
Dogs Need Structure
Love is NOT all you need. If that were true, shelters would be empty. I've fostered many dogs who were loved but reluctantly surrendered because they were out of control. Dogs NEED structure. They NEED rules. They NEED to know how to navigate their world. You are their Captain, and it is up to you to guide them.
There must be a leader in a social group for the group to survive. Every decision can't be democratic. Which way do we go to hunt for food? Which way do we go to escape from danger? This is the purpose of a dominant animal (in wolves, like with humans, it's the parents). Their job is to keep the whole group safe and make sure they get enough to eat. If your dog doesn't feel confident that someone is Captaining the ship, they may try to do it because they know that a ship with no Captain is NOT SAFE. They may be anxious, stressed, and reactive because they are not equipped to be Captain. You will not "hurt your dog's feelings" by setting rules and boundaries. You will make them feel like they are safe with you and they can hang their hat on you.
You do not need to "show them who's boss". You do need to show them that you are a capable Captain. People do not respect bosses who are competent but untrustworthy, and they don't respect bosses who are trustworthy but incompetent. A good boss is both. A good Captain is both. A good Dog owner is both.