The Magic Words ‘Yes’ and ‘No’

Roger Abrantes and Dog

'No' is a signal. It means 'stop what you are doing.' It is not a punisher (photo from the EI archives).

Yes and no are two very short words, yet they convey the most important information many living beings can receive, on one level regulating their organic functions on another, their behavior, and ultimately, their survival. If I say these words don’t require any explanation, everyone would probably agree and yet we’d be wrong. Did you know that in some languages yes and no don’t exist?

In my book “Psychology rather than Power,” written in 1984, I define ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in dog training for the first time. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you’re doing now” and ‘no’ means “stop what you’re doing now.” I explain how to teach our dogs these signals and I emphasize that ‘no’ is not a punisher and that it should always be followed by a reinforcer as soon as the dog changes its behavior. As the years passed, I reviewed, improved and refined all definitions, especially the ways to teach dogs these signals. In 1994, I wrote the first draught of SMAF, which provided the opportunity to analyze signals and teaching methods (POA=plans of action) with increased precision. The definitions of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ remained the same, but we could now clearly distinguish between the two completely different ways in which dog owners and trainers were using the sound ‘no.’ One was as a signal as I describe; the other was as a punisher. The punisher ‘no’ was pronounced more harshly than the signal ‘no’ but was basically the same sound. Transcribing it into SMAF, we had no doubt that we were talking about two different stimuli. The signal is No(stop what you doing right now),sound(no) and the punisher is [!+sound](no).

Using a punisher as a signal to encourage the dog to do something is never a good idea as the function of a punisher is to decrease the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Conversely, the function of a signal is to produce a behavior which we increase in frequency, intensity and/or duration by reinforcing. Therefore, in order to increase the effectiveness of No,sound (the signal), we had to explain very carefully to owners and trainers that they should never use ‘no’ as a punisher. Amazingly (or perhaps not), many dogs could distinguish between the two ‘no’s,’ but we didn’t want to risk them forming a respondent association between the sound ‘no’ and an aversive. We should use any other sound (word), e.g. ‘phooey’ (‘fy’ or ‘føj’ in the Scandinavian languages) as a punisher.

Why the word ‘no’?

The word ‘no’ seemed to me at the time, the best option to convey, “stop what you are doing right now.” After all, implicitly or explicitly, this is the way most of us use this word (when we have it in our language, that is). Of course, some people cannot say ‘no’ properly, but the fact that some people have bad manners doesn’t detract from the meaning or the value of the word itself.

The magic words ‘yes’ and no

‘Yes’ and ‘no’ are two words used for expressing affirmatives and negatives. The words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are difficult to classify under one of the eight conventional parts of speech. They are not interjections (they do not express emotion or calls for attention). They are sometimes classified as sentence words or grammatical particles.

Modern English has two words for affirmatives and negatives, but early English had four words: yesyeano and nay.

If you’re a native English speaker, you know what yes and no mean and you have no problem using these words, from a linguistic point of view, that is. You might have a problem using the word no from a psychological point of view, but that’s a completely different story.

If you are a native English speaker and have never ventured into learning other languages, you probably believe there is no problem in simply answering any question with yes or no. After all, most things either are or are not, are either true or false, right? I’m afraid I’m going to have to disappoint you by demonstrating that you are wrong.

Even though some languages have corresponding words for yes and no, we do not use them to answer questions. For example, in Portuguese, Finnish and Welsh, you rarely answer questions with yes and no. Portuguese: “Estás bem?” (Are you OK?) “Estou” (I am). Finnish: “Onko sinulla nälkä?” (Are you hungry?) “On” (I am). Welsh: “Ydy Ffred yn dod?” (Is Ffred coming?) “Ydy” (He is coming).

In Scandinavian languages, French and German (amongst others), you answer questions with yes and no, but you have two different ways of saying yes depending on whether the question is an affirmative response to a positively-phrased question or an affirmative response to a negatively-phrased question: Danish and Swedish (ja, jo, nej), Norwegian (ja, jo, nei), French (oui, si, non), German (ja, doch, nein).

So far so good, but if you venture into the Asian languages,  it gets far more complicated. Some Asian languages don’t have words for yes and no. In Japanese, the words はい (hai) and いいえ (iie) do not mean yes and no, but agreement or disagreement with the statement of the question, i.e. “agree.” or “disagree.” はい can also mean “I understand what you’re saying.” The same in Thai: ใช่ (chai) and ไมใช่ (maichai) mean “correct,” “not-correct.” In Thai you can’t answer the question “คุณหิวข้าวไหม” (Are you hungry?) with “ใช่” (correct). It doesn’t make sense for what is it that you are confirming to be correct? The right answers are “หิว” (hungry) or “ไมหิว” (not hungry). In all Chinese dialects, yes-no questions assume the form “A or not-A” and you answer echoing one of the statements (A or not-A). In Mandarin, the closest equivalents to yes and no are 是 (shì) “be” and 不是 (búshì) “to not be.”

Latin has no single words for yes and no. The vocative case and adverbs are used instead. The Romans used ita or ita vero (thus, indeed) for the affirmative and for the negative, they used adverbs such as minime, (in the least degree). Another common way to answer questions in Latin was to repeat the verb like in Portuguese, Castellano and Catalan (e.g. est or non est).  We can also use adverbs: itavero, etiam (even so), sane quidem (indeed, indeed), certe (certainly), recte dicis (you say rightly) or nullo modo (by no means), minime (in the least degree), haud (not at all!), non quidem (indeed not).

In computer languageyes and no appear as a succession of “A or B” conditions. If condition A is true, then action X. A computer’s CPU only needs to recognize two states, on or offyes or noone or zero for us to instruct it to perform complicated operations.

The theories of quantum computation suggest that every physical object, even the universe, is in some sense a quantum computer. The universe itself appears to be composed of yes and no. Professor Seth Lloyd writes: “(…) everything in the universe is made of bits. Not chunks of stuff, but chunks of information—ones and zeros. (…) Atoms and electrons are bits. Machine language is the laws of physics. The universe is a quantum computer.”

The way computers use yes and no is the closest to our own general use of these terms. ‘Yes’ means “continue what you are doing right now.” ‘No’ means “stop what you are doing right now.” This is the implied meaning of yes and no in the majority of the sentences. “Are you hungry?” The answer “yes” would result in you getting food and “no” in the opposite. “Shall I turn right? ” followed by a ‘yes’ would make me continue with what I intended to do and if followed by a ‘no,’ would make me stop doing it. A ‘yes’ in response to  “Did you buy rice today?” would prompt me to continue doing whatever I might be doing and a ‘no’ would lead me to interrupt what I’m doing to go and buy some rice. There are many other examples, but in general ‘yes’ prompts or encourages a continuation and ‘no’ does the opposite. There is nothing particularly positive or negative in either. Both are valuable bits of information that we can transform into behavior for our benefit. Both save energy, the most important resource for all living organisms.

Two peculiar aspects of ‘yes’ and ‘no’

As we have seen, some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no.’ This is a cultural phenomenon. For example, in Japan and in Thailand, it is bad manners to be direct. Japanese and Thai people consider ambiguity to be a beautiful aspect of their language. The objective in courtesy is to convey the true meaning between the lines. The way the message is communicated should be as unclear as possible, especially when criticizing someone or rejecting an invitation. This linguistic feature is probably related to the sense of self-respect and honor that is so pronounced in both cultures, i.e. one doesn’t want to hurt other people’s feelings, or lose face.

For example, I can’t say to a Thai employee that arrives late to work “Arriving late is not acceptable. Please, rectify this in the future.” If I do, I won’t have an employee coming to work at all the next day or maybe ever again. I’d have to say “If we had employees that arrived late, we would have to ask them to come at the right time, don’t you think?” That would have the desired effect. If you invite a Japanese to an event that he or she is not the least bit interested in, they will answer “I want to come, but unfortunately it is impossible on that day.” That would suffice for me to understand that they not interested without making me lose face. Suggesting another day (and missing the point) is considered impolite.

Thais use คฺรับ (khrap, by men), ค่ะ (kha, by women) and the Japanese use はい (hai) to show that they are listening to you because it is impolite for them to let you talk for any length of time without their acknowledgement.  However, it does not mean they agree with what you are saying, or that they will comply.

In terms of animal training, if a signal is “everything that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver” and a command is “a signal that intentionally changes the behavior of the receiver in a specific way with no variations or only extremely minor variations,” the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ are probably the closest we come to commands (‘yes’ means continue and ‘no’ means stop and, as with most behaviors, there are not many possible variations in continuing or stopping, if any).

Is ‘no’ a bad word?

‘No’ is not a bad word, on the contrary it is a very useful word. It conveys information in a precise and efficient way. To get ‘no’ as an answer is as important as getting a ‘yes.’ Both save us energy and lead us to our goal. Personally, I like the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ equally and I wished people would learn to use them properly and more often.

The other day, I went to a busy store at a busy hour with busy employees and I didn’t have the time or the patience to wait. I said to the employee: “I have a question that you can answer quickly with a yes or no. Do you have a Time Capsule 2TB?”

“I have one, but it’s reserved for a customer,” he answered.

“What does that mean? Is he coming to pick it up or not?” I asked again.

“Yes, he is.” He answered.

“Well, than that’s a no right?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

Why couldn’t he just have said no the first time? It would have saved us all time: me, the other customers in the line, and not least himself.

Another example:

United Airlines desk at the gate boarding to ORD: I approach and ask: “Do you have an empty seat on this flight?”

The United operator answers me: “That depends on your ticket, sir.”

“No, it doesn’t,” I reply, “whether or not you have empty seats does not depend on my ticket, It depends on whether all the seats will have butts on or not.”

A colleague of hers smiles and checks. “Sorry, sir, this flight is fully-booked. I have one seat on the next flight, but… it’s business class.”

“No ‘but’, you can put a comma or an ‘and’ in there,” I say. It blows my mind. A seat is a seat and that’s what I asked for. A seat is not less of a seat because it is a business class seat.

“Excuse me, sir?” she says with a smile, plainly not understanding my remark based on linguistics/logic.

“Never mind. Here’s my frequent flyer card. I have an e-ticket for the 7.13 pm flight. Upgrade it on the card, please. Thank you.” I smile to her in an attempt to reinforce her for having been able to think clearly (yes/no) for two seconds and for checking availability on the next flight.

“Yes, sir.” Finally a short and precise answer!

Why couldn’t they have just answered first ‘no’ and then ‘yes’ until they got the next bit of information, if I had any to give them? It would have saved me (and them) time and energy. If the lack of words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ in Asian languages is frustrating for the Western communicator, the refusal to use them or their incorrect usage in languages where they exist and are well defined is exasperating.

Why don’t some people like the word ‘no’?

Cultural differences apart, some people don’t like the word ‘no’ for the same reason that some dogs don’t like it either: because they associate ‘no’ with aversives. Parents are just as bad as dog owners in distinguishing between signals and punishers and they make the same mistakes which will later create problems for their children.

Of course, parents have to yell ‘no’ if  the toddler is about to  stick his fingers in the wall outlet (plug socket). There’s nothing wrong with that. What is wrong, and creates the aversive respondent association with ‘no’, is the constant repetition without a reinforcer when the behavior stops. The toddler only learns that sometimes parents go berserk and, has no idea why or how to avoid it. The toddler becomes so sensitive to the word ‘no’ that later on, like many others, he or she would rather live with regret than to risk hearing a ‘no.’ This conditioning can also happen later in life to which abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses all contribute.

An elementary mistake, committed by both parents and dog owners, contributes to the aversive connotation of ‘no.’ If we have to use punishment, we should never (ever) punish the individual, we punish the behavior. Punishing the individual is what creates traumas, a lack of self-confidence, the feeling of rejection, etc. Punishing the individual rather than the behavior can even produce aggressive behavior rather than decreasing the intended behavior.

The reason why some people don’t like ‘no’ has nothing to do with the word or the message conveyed, but with the aversive(s) to which it was (respondently) conditioned. To change that goes beyond the scope of biology, animal behavior and linguistics, and pertains to the realm of psychology.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with the word ‘no’ and particularly not with the message it conveys. There is something wrong with abusive parents, irate spouses, tyrannical bosses and ignorant people (all potentially abusive animal owners). To forbid the word ‘no’ or to replace it with another, e.g. ‘stop,’ does not resolve the problem. The only thing that does solve the problem is to educate people, to teach them to respect others independently of species, race and sex.

‘No’ in dog training

The signal ‘no’ is indispensable in dog training. I use it constantly when training detection dogs and rats, and the animals respond correctly with no emotional response at all. I give the signal ‘search’ by means of sound, the dog searches, I reinforce it. I give the dog the signal ‘no,’ the dog changes direction, I reinforce it. If the dog stops and looks at me, I give the signal ‘direction’ with a stretched arm toward the desired direction, I give the signal ‘search’ by means of sound, the dog searches and I reinforce it. If necessary, while the dog searches, I can signal ‘yes’ to encourage the dog to continue searching (‘yes’ functions here as a signal and a reinforcer, not an exception at all).

For those of you proficient in SMAF:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

PRS2. {No,sound => Dog changes direction => “!±sound”};

ALT2. {No,sound => Dog stops and looks at me => Direction,arm + Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound”};

If necessary:

PRS1. {Search,sound => Dog searches => “!±sound” => Dog searches => Yes,sound};

/* Yes,sound also functioning as “!±sound */

In languages where there are no words for ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ such as Thai, I use ใช่ (chai=correct) and หยุด (yut=stop) respectively for “continue what you are doing right now” and “stop what you are doing right now.” I don’t use ไมใช่ (maichai=not correct) because the sound is too close to ใช่ (chai=correct).

Some trainers don’t allow their dog owners to say ‘no’ at all in their classes. This is an option, particularly if we have a class full of bad-mannered dog owners, but if our class consists of average, well-mannered owners, I cannot see any reason to do so. If they are not well-mannered, maybe they should learn good manners before beginning training their dogs; and maybe, by training them to be polite to their dogs, we could even make a change for the better in their lives in general by teaching them good manners toward their fellow humans as well.

Forbidding the signal ‘no’ in dog training is a grave mistake (and misunderstanding) in my opinion. Firstly, it is one of the two most crucial signals in life. Secondly we all need a quick, efficient signal to stop a behavior which might be life threatening for someone we care about (human or animal). Thirdly, it would be an untenable waste of time and energy if we had to resort to diverting maneuvers every time someone (our dogs included) did something undesirable.

Substituting the signal ‘no’ with other sounds (words) such as ‘stop,’ or ‘off’ doesn’t solve the problem. It only transfers the conditioning to those new words. The problem is that some people just can’t speak nicely to anyone. Most dog owners yell their dog’s name and they yell ‘come.’ What are we going to do about that? Forbid them to use their dog’s name and the word ‘come’? What’s the next thing we are going to forbid them? Rather then forbidding, it seems to me a much better option to teach them to communicate properly. We need to explain to them that the words they use, in the way they use them, are not signals but punishers and by definition they will not achieve the desired result, quite the contrary, they will get an undesired outcome. We need to show them how appropriate signals effect appropriate behaviors.

Bottom-line: The fact that some languages don’t have words for ‘yes’ and ‘no’ and that Latin uses quantifiers instead, suggests that there are cognitive as well as emotional elements connected to the meaning of both words. Maybe the logical human brain likes the precision and simplicity implied in ‘yes’ and ‘no,’ but the emotional human brain doesn’t. The universe and computers have no queries with ‘yes’ and ‘no’ perhaps because they are not emotional. Perhaps ‘yes’ and ‘no’ appeared in some languages at a stage when action became more decisive than emotion. We don’t know. I haven’t been able to clarify any of these questions. Nevertheless, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ convey important bits of information in a succinct and precise way. In the languages, which contain them, we can use them correctly for our benefit.

Enjoy and don’t feel guilty because you are well-mannered and know how to say no.



Abrantes or Dunbar—Who’s the Best?

Ian Dunbar and Roger Abrantes in San Francisco in 2005.

The other day after a seminar, an attendee came to join me at the pool table. I have a habit of selecting the bar with the most decent pool table as my after hours office wherever I happen to give a seminar. I invite the attendees to join me there in the evening, assuring them that they will be most welcome to ask me any question they like; and indeed they do, they approach the pool table, drink in one hand and pool cue in the other; and fire away.

Balls racked up, I took the break, didn’t pocket any balls, didn’t scratch and passed the game to my opponent, a local, female dog trainer in her late twenties. She took a shot and missed. Then, she looked at me with a radiant, slightly coquettish smile.

“Is it now that I can ask you any question I like?” she enquired teasingly.

“Yes, it is, but please do it before or after I take my shot,” I  replied, stressing the words before and after.

“Ok then,” she said. I could see her formulating the question in her mind before the actual words materialized. “Your approach to training is so different to Ian Dunbar’s,” she said finally with a slightly furrowed brow.

It was my turn to smile, “That’s not a question, that’s a statement,” I said jokingly while I chalked the tip of my cue. “Really?” I added slightly theatrically.

“Yes,” she continued eagerly,“ I’ve just been to one of his seminars. What do you think?”

“Equal or different?” I asked rhetorically, “I don’t know, I have never thought of it that way. I don’t know exactly how Ian trains particular skills, but I’m sure it’s good.”

“Interesting!” she exclaimed slowly, syllable by syllable, “How can you say so emphatically that it is good and yet admit you don’t know exactly what it is? Didn’t you recommend as recently as this afternoon that we question everything and never rely on authorities just because they are so? You called that authority bias, didn’t you?”

“Yes, I did, but I’m not committing authority bias by believing that what Ian does is right, just because it is Ian. I question all authorities, including and mainly myself when I’m supposed to be one,” and I approached her as if I were going to tell her a trade secret.

“In this case, I’m relying on the WHATFOR principle,” I said with an enigmatic air.

“The WHATFOR principle?” she asked with a furrowed brow.

“Yes, the ‘Wise, Honorable And Trustworthy Friend’s Own Record,” I explain.  Since I don’t have the time to check everything for my self, I select a few people, very few, who I trust and know well to do it for me, so to speak. I know Ian’s record. I’ve known him since we were young and hopeful, I know what his principles are and I know his integrity. That’s why, not because he’s an authority. I can do that, but you can’t. You can’t just accept what Ian or I tell you without questioning it because you don’t know us that well. It would be too risky for you to do so.”

“Okay,” she said pensively, in two very distinct syllables, fidgeting with the cue and chalk. “And that is enough?”

“That’s more than enough for me; and, by the way, we do question ourselves and one another,” I replied. “Of course, you’ll find similarities and differences between us. There will always be similarities and differences. We are not the same person even though we think alike in many respects. We are similar enough to understand one another and work together toward a common goal; and reasonably different to be able to inspire one another with new ideas. That’s the most important thing I think, but making comparisons doesn’t get us anywhere. I don’t think there is one single better or best way. That depends on the user. Some will find one way better, others the other. Of course Ian and I are different. In the end, no two trainers do the same thing the same way, not even our twin brothers would.”

“Oh, you both have twin brothers!” she exclaimed, all thrilled and wide eyed.

“No, we don’t,” I observed calmly, a touch sorry to dishearten her.

“Interesting,” she uttered again, syllable by syllable, visibly puzzled whilst looking long and deeply into her beer glass. I found it appropriate to call my shots and pocketed three balls.

It was when I was getting ready to go for the next shot that she continued.

“Sorry to bother you with all these questions, but I find it fascinating and I really have so much to ask. I want to become a good trainer.”

“No worries, just fire!” I hastened to say. “It’s your turn by the way,” I added, turning my eyes to the table.

She pocketed a ball, called an apparently easy, but long, shot and missed. Her bridge was very unstable, her mind apparently not on the game.

“It’s because I want to choose a training method,” she explained, turning to me, “and I like both yours and Ian’s, but they are so different that I don’t know what to do. OK, at least you agree with the way Ian trains dogs even if you do things differently.”

“It all depends on how you look at it,” I exclaimed. “When I look at Ian working with a dog, I don’t look with my feelings and emotions, I detach myself from my own particular thoughts and feelings, and Ian’s way looks good to me. I don’t even put myself in agree/disagree mode. If I always look at things with my own limited repertoire of emotions as a reference, I will miss a lot, maybe even the whole lot .”

I got ready to take my next shot, but she didn’t allow me to.

“And then?… Please, continue, “she begged,” and I indulged her.

“You’ll become a good trainer if you’re patient and diligent, if you take the time to study behavior and the principles of learning in depth and get the necessary experience. You must be open-minded and critical at the same time, not an easy task. Don’t discard a theory just because you don’t like it, and don’t accept another just because it apparently suits your own immediate goals. Don’t approve of an argument just because you like the person who uses it; and don’t reject one because you don’t like the person behind it. Then, you’ll become a good trainer and you know what?” I asked, pausing for effect.

“No, please tell me!” she pleaded.

“And you’ll be a different trainer, different from Dunbar and Abrantes because you’ll be your own.”

“Wow,” she cried out, “I hope you’re right!”

“I am, but you must be careful and wise. One method does not necessarily need to be better or worse than any other. It all comes down to what level of detail you want to go into and, in the end, what kind of person you are. There are many ways to do the same. Look at life, so many ways to live, so many life forms and yet the same goal, to live as long as possible and preferably pass your genes to the next generation. Ian’s way is great on one level and mine, hopefully, on another. I like to think they supplement or complement one another. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter.” I said and added with a sheepish smile, “Einstein didn’t prove that Newton was wrong. They are both right. It all depends on what level of reality you’re looking at.”

I left her pondering for a while, I called my next shots and pocketed four more balls. I had a good pool night.

“This becomes more and more interesting,” she said and laughed. “So you and Ian are looking at two different levels of the same reality. Never thought about it that way.”

“Maybe we are,” I said.

I took a sip of my beer and called “Eight in the corner.”

“Well, maybe you’re right. I think I can see now that your methods are not so different after all. It’s all a question of detail,” she said, sort of summing up her thoughts.

“Anyway, you do look alike,” she added jokingly, “you are both intriguing and you both drink beer,” and she laughed wholeheartedly while I pocketed the eight.

“But Ian beats you,” she added with an extra giggle, “he drinks more beer than you.”

“That may be,” I said, “but I beat him in pool!”

Rack ’em up! Life is good!


The First Ten Skills You Should Teach Your Puppy

A male Bulldog puppy.

Bulldog puppy (Image via Wikipedia)

There are many skills that your puppy must learn in order to enjoy a good doggy life in our human world. It is your responsibility to teach your puppy these skills. Opinions may differ as to what are the most fundamental skills to teach your puppy. In my opinion, you should focus on the ten skills I describe here so that both you and your puppy enjoy being together and can safely begin to discover the world.

There are many ways to teach your puppy the skills I mention below and one method is not necessarily better than another. There are many ways to reach the same goal and you should choose the method or variation that best suits you, your lifestyle and your puppy’s temperament. The training methods I describe here have worked very well for the many owners and puppies we have coached at the Ethology Institute Cambridge over the years, but remember that they are only rough guidelines and you should adapt them to your own puppy as you see fit.

Dog friendly facial expression.

Dogs understand our friendly facial expressions (a slight pouty mouth and slightly closed eyes). They may even offer us a ‘lick,’ which is a friendly behavior in dogs (Picture from PetTastics)

The first ten skills

1. The puppy’s name

2. Yes

3. No

4. Come

5. Sit

6. Walking on leash

7. Hygiene

8. Socialization

9. Environmental habituation

10. Home alone

Two principles (=> means implies or is followed by)

One signal => one behavior: Give only one signal for each behavior that you want the puppy to display. Example: you give the signal ‘sit’ by means of ‘sound’ and ‘hand movement’ and expect the behavior of your puppy sitting. Strictly speaking, you’re giving two signals, but they both intend to produce the same behavior, which is all right.

One signal => one behavior => one consequence: Your puppy’s behavior will change according to the consequences immediately following the behavior. If you give it a treat when it sits, it will sit more often. If you don’t give it a treat and ignore it, it will sit less frequently.

Your training tools

signal is everything that changes a behavior. It indicates to your puppy that if it does something, it will get something. Remember: One signal => one behavior => one consequence. A signal can be a sound (a word), a hand movement, a body posture, and a facial expression.

A reinforcer is everything that increases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior of your puppy—it reinforces the behavior and that’s why it is called so. You use reinforcers to reinforce the behavior you wish to be repeated. Reinforcers are, therefore, the consequences of what you consider to be good behavior. They can be a food treat or a word of your choice. Most people say “good-dog,” or “good-job.” My chosen word is  “dygtig,” (which means “clever” or “competent” in Danish) as I find that the sound of it works efficiently as a reinforcer. A “click-sound” can also be a reinforcer if you have repeatedly associated it with a treat, but you won’t need the clicker for these first skills. Remember that a treat is only a reinforcer if the puppy is hungry and that your chosen word is only a reinforcer if you associate it with a doggy friendly body language and facial expression and say it in a pleasant tone.

Doggy friendly body language consists of deliberate movements (not quick, not jerky and not as slow as stalking). Don’t bend too much over the dog. Give the dog some personal space. When you walk, do it rhythmically: don’t change pace or direction abruptly. A doggy friendly facial expression consists of a quiet and self-confident expression. Don’t make big eyes. Dogs interpret closed mouths with lips together (as when you are going to give a kiss) as a friendly expression (I think this is why the sound dygtig works so well).

Important: Treats, toys and training devices are useful and sometimes necessary, but the greatest learning tool of all is the way you use yourself, your body language and your facial expressions.

You will need treats (if you use dry food, use some of it as treats), a collar and a leash (for skill 6).

Some terms and expressions:

  • DLO means Desired Learning Objective.
  • POA means Plan of Action
  • QC means Quality Control and indicates the number of times in a row (or similar criteria) you must have accomplished your DLO successfully before you move to the next level.
  • => means implies.

To fail to plan is to plan to fail. Therefore, you’ll find that I’ve organized each plan to train a skill like a ‘quick guide.’ Read each one carefully and make sure that you know exactly what you must do before you begin a training session.

1. The Puppy’s Name

DLO — to teach the puppy to look at you when you say its name.

The puppy’s name is important because you’ll need to have the puppy look at you on many occasions. The name of the puppy is not the same as “come,” but you can give it that meaning if you want, in which case, you don’t need to teach the puppy the signal “come.” However, I recommend you keep these two signals separate. Later on, depending on how much you would like to teach your puppy, you may need a signal for the puppy to look at you without coming to you.

Tools you need:

Name (means look at me) — choose a clear sounding name; a name with two syllables works well (in our example the name is “Bongo”).

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, a word (I use “dygtig” in the examples below) and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Stay close to the puppy, no leash.

  1. Say, “Bongo” and clap your hands.
  2. The puppy looks at you => say “dygtig,” show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression, and give the puppy a treat.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times. Take a small break and then continue.

Level 2 — Move 5-6 steps away from the puppy and repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times. Again, take a break.

Level 3 — Move 5-6 steps away from the puppy and repeat steps 1 and 2, but without clapping your hands. Just say the puppy’s name.

QC: Repeat until the puppy looks at you ten consecutive times.

2. Yes

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Yes.”

“Yes” is a very important signal. It means, “continue doing what you are doing.” It is a signal you teach the puppy from day one by using it. Initially it does not mean much to the puppy but, as the puppy associates it with your body language, it will begin to understand what you want.

Your POA:

You teach the puppy “yes” by using it repeatedly any time the puppy does what you want, such as running towards you.

  • When the puppy responds to your “yes,” say “dygtig” and show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression. You can give it a treat, if you have one, but it not necessary. Your friendly body language and facial expression are enough reinforcement.

3. No

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “No.”

“No” is also a very important signal. It means, “stop what you’re doing.”

Your POA:

You teach the puppy “no” by using it any time the puppy does something you don’t want it to do.

  • If and when the puppy stops, say “dygtig” and show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression.
  • If the puppy doesn’t stop, say “no” again with a harsher voice and maybe a slight foot stamp on the floor. As soon as the puppy stops, say “dygtig” and assume doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression.

Important: Don’t shout “no.” You don’t want to scare the puppy, only startle it slightly so that it looks as you. Remember that no is a signal as any other and it should not elicit any unpleasant connotations. You should always say your “no” confidently and politely as in “No, sir,” or “No, ma’am.”

4. Come

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Come.”

Tools you need:

Name (means look at me) — Teach the puppy “come” once the puppy is reacting promptly to its name, which it should be doing after skill 1.

Come (means move directly towards me).

Yes (means continue what you’re doing) — already taught in skill 2.

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Indoors in a quiet environment. Stand 5-6 steps from the puppy, no leash.

  1. Say “Bongo” and then when the puppy looks at you, say, “come” clapping your hands.
  2. While the puppy runs to you, repeat the signal “yes” as many times as necessary.
  3. Say “dygtig” when the puppy is in front of you, show doggy friendly body language and a doggy friendly facial expression and give it the treat you are holding between your fingers.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

Level 2 — Indoors with one or two other people present, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

Level 3 — Outdoors in a quiet, closed environment, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy comes to you ten consecutive times.

5. Sit

DLO — to teach the puppy the meaning of the sound “Sit.”

Tools you need:

Sit means put your butt on the floor and keep it there until you get another signal. You will be using two signals for sit, one is the sound “sit” and the other is your hand movement.

Free (means move now). You say “free” and, initially, you move around a bit to encourage the puppy to move as well. In the beginning, you are therefore using two signals—the sound “free” and your movement.

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Your POA:

Level 1 — Indoors in a quiet environment, no leash. Stand or kneel in front of the puppy.

  1. With a treat between your thumb and pointing finger make a smooth movement upwards right in front of the puppy’s nose and say “siiit” at the same time.
  2. When the puppy sits, say “dygtig” and give the puppy the treat you are holding.
  3. Wait a couple of seconds, say “free” and when the puppy moves, say “dygtig” and give it a treat.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

Level 2 — Indoors, stand 2-3 steps away from the puppy, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

Level 3 — Outdoors in a quiet, closed environment, no leash. Repeat steps 1 and 2.

QC: Repeat until the puppy sits five consecutive times and moves on your “free.”

6. Walking on Leash

DLO — to allow the puppy to get used to walk with a collar and leash.

Tools you need:

Reinforcers — You’ll need two types of reinforcers, “dygtig” and food treats.

Collar and leash.

Your POA:

  • Walk 3-4 slow, but steady, steps in one direction and then change direction several times, all in a smooth, rhythmical movement.
  • Don’t wait for the puppy—the puppy will understand after a few trials that it has to follow you.
  • In the beginning, for every change of direction, give the puppy a treat, then for every second change of direction give the puppy a treat.
  • Keep eye contact with the puppy and show friendly body language and facial expression.
  • Say “dygtig” whenever the puppy follows you.
  • QC: Repeat until the puppy follows you freely 8-10 steps.

7. Hygiene

DLO: to teach your puppy not to urinate and defecate indoors.

Your POA:

There is no standard way to teach your dog cleanliness. However, the following advice has helped many puppy owners, including myself. Dogs develop preferences for spots as well as surfaces on which to urinate and defecate. It is important we give them these preferences early on. You need to choose a suitable place outside your house where your puppy can relieve itself. This place should be relatively quiet, without too many distractions. Get your puppy acquainted with that area, but don’t make it a play area. When your dog has relieved itself, move away from the area. Allow the puppy to relieve itself without disturbing it. Do not reinforce the behavior. If you do, the puppy may associate the behavior of urinating and defecating with getting attention from you and will do it later to achieve that.

  • Take the puppy to its chosen doggy toilet area as soon as it has eaten, played vigorously for a while or has just woken up.
  • If you discover that the puppy has urinated or defecated indoors, just clean it up thoroughly, removing all odor. There is no point scolding the puppy or giving it any explanations.
  • If you see the puppy urinating elsewhere, pick it up right away and go to your chosen doggy toilet area.

Be patient.

8. Socialization

DLO: to teach your puppy how to live in our human world.

Your POA:

Socialization is the process by which individuals acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to conform to the norms required for integration into a group or community.

There is no standard way to socialize your puppy.

You must start socializing your puppy from day one, as soon as you get it. The opportunity for socialization is at its peak between 8 and 16 weeks of age and remains until the puppy is about six months of age. You must not waste this period. If you do, you will not be able to re-gain what you lost, only attempt to repair it.

  • It is not enough for your puppy to feel comfortable at home and in your favorite dog park where it goes for a walk every day, plays with the same playmates and greets the same people. You need to expose the puppy to (many) strangers, people as well as dogs, and to new environments.
  • Exposure to novel stimuli should happen gradually.
  • Allow your puppy to play with other puppies as well as (sociable) adult dogs. Growling, snarling, barking are all normal canine expressions and there’s nothing wrong with it. Rough play with other puppies teaches your puppy the boundaries of social interactions. Your puppy learns self-control by playing with others. It learns good manners and when enough is enough.
  • Your puppy should go out every day and have pleasant experiences with all different types of friendly people (adults and children) and friendly dogs (of many different sizes, shapes and ages).

9. Environmental habituation

DLO: to habituate your puppy to the environment.

Your POA:

Since our world contains many different stimuli, you should habituate your puppy to as many stimuli as possible, such as sounds, motions, people, animals, objects. Allow the puppy to discover the world. Do not control everything. You should coach, not control.

  • If the puppy has a bad experience, your role is to downplay it. Don’t give the puppy explanations that it cannot understand. Just proceed engaging it in some other familiar activity.

10. Home alone

To teach your dog to be home alone, please read “Teach Your Dog to be Home Alone in Five Steps” at

Remember that your puppy is a living being with its own characteristics and that, independently of how well or badly it fares in its learning process, it deserves to be respected.

Enjoy your puppy training!



Q. When can I begin training my puppy?

A. Right away. The methods I describe here are so doggy friendly that you can use them as soon as your puppy comes home, when the puppy is eight weeks of age.

Q. What is the most important to teach a puppy?

A. To learn how to learn, which means to learn how to change its behavior in order to achieve the desired consequences, and to feel good about it. Life is a challenge and you should teach your puppy to enjoy being challenged. Coach your puppy; don’t solve all its problems for it.

Q. When can I go out and let my puppy meet other puppies?

A. Preferably right away. Socialization is a crucial factor in the puppy’s development and is time limited. Talk to your vet about vaccinations and other health precautions you should take.

Q. What about punishment? —Surely I will need to punish the puppy occasionally?

A. A punisher is everything that decreases the frequency, intensity and/or duration of a behavior. Remember that punishment has nothing to do with violence, pain or revenge; and it has nothing to do with the individual, only the behavior. You punish the behavior, but never the puppy. If your puppy is hungry, you can offer it a treat if it sits. If it doesn’t sit, you don’t give it the treat (this is called a negative punisher because you negate, take away something). If your puppy is not hungry, not giving it the treat will not be a punisher. Sometimes, to have the puppy stop doing something, you may need to use a startling sound, like a foot stamp or a particularly loud clapping of your hands. This is called a positive punisher because you posit, put forward, add something. However you may occasionally need to punish a behavior, remember that the best strategy is always prevention rather than cure. Creating good habits from day one will considerably decrease your need to punish unwanted behavior. Warning: violent or painful stimuli may not decrease the behavior (hence, are not punishers), but may elicit evasive behavior, traumas, or aggressive behavior.

Q. Do I need to train every day?

A. It depends on what you consider training to be. Living with a puppy you are training it constantly. Beware: the most important training happens when you are not training your puppy. Everything you do has consequences.

Q. Do I need a lot of time to train my puppy?

A. Again, it depends on what you consider training to be. Initially, your puppy will require a lot of your attention because you should be preventing unwanted behavior and creating good habits, which means that you’ll have to watch the puppy most of the time. If your life is stressful, you have too many responsibilities and you don’t think you can allow yourself enough time-out to dedicate yourself solely to the puppy with a relaxed, positive mindset, you shouldn’t get a puppy.

Q. Do I need to be bossy for my puppy to respect me?

A. You should lead by example. If you show your puppy that you are good at solving problems, the puppy will follow your directions more readily. If you lead by force, you create animosity that may one day turn against you. If you lead by example, you’ll be active and create opportunities for the puppy to expend its energy and develop its skills. If you do not, the puppy will find other ways to stimulate itself, which you might not find appropriate (the first step in creating a problem dog).

Q. Do I need to join a dog training class?

A. You don’t need to, but it’s a good idea. Good dog training classes are beneficial to both you and your puppy. You will receive coaching and your puppy will have a wonderful opportunity to meet a variety of dogs and people as well as be challenged. Be critical when you choose a dog training class, or a dog trainer to coach you, and remember that you are the one who decides in the end. Like in all professions, there are many excellent dog trainers out there, using different methods but all with good results—whilst, unfortunately, there are also many bad dog trainers, using bad methods with bad results. Choose carefully.

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