Can You Use Your Dog’s Name Negatively?
It always catches my attention when I find myself doing something with my own dogs that runs contrary to standard training advice. The list is decently long: playing tug of war; rewarding with rawhides; repeating the “come” command; not ignoring demand barking; not turning away when jumped on … (I’ll blog about each of these eventually.)
One common bit of dog training advice says
“Never use your dog’s name negatively.”
E.g. never say your dog’s name in a corrective tone of voice – harshly, sharply, accusatorially.
Yet I find myself doing this all the time! And my experience is that most dog owners do the same at one time or another.
There’s a new flower bed out in front of our apartment, on a patch of dirt that used to be their favorite pee-spot. The dogs of course don’t have much of an aesthetic eye for flora. So every time we head out the front door (usually offleash) I have to warn in a deep tone “Monnnnnnnkey…!!” Translation: “Don’t you dare!”
And when Arthur heads over to some delicious-smelling fresh poop in the park, I bark “ARTie!” Translation: “Leave it!”
Is this wrong? Am I harming my dogs, or sabotaging my relationship with them in some way? I don’t think so.
The idea is that you don’t want your dog associating his or her name with negative consequences – so they’ll come happily when you call them, or sit and stay, etc. But as long as you don’t normally use their names negatively, they’ll understand the difference in tone. So much of a dog’s understanding of our language, after all, is based on our body language, tone, energy, and intention. When I call Monkey or Arthur to come, play, sit, or anything else where they aren’t misbehaving, my tone is happy and relaxed; and their responses demonstrate total understanding. Believe me: my dogs LOVE when I call their name; because I spoil them rotten!
So don’t worry if you sometimes use your dog’s name negatively. But should you ever? Is there anything advantageous about it? Or would it be better, for instance, to use a generic correction or corrective command like “Leave it”?
A generic corrective noise like “TSHHH” or a shake of a can of coins, first of all, will not work when dealing with multiple dogs at once. Instead of correcting just the troublemaker, you correct the others at the same time, even when they aren’t doing anything wrong. And that can be damaging to their nerves and to your relationship. For instance I want to be able to make Monkey stop approaching the flowers without correcting Arthur, otherwise Arthur will be confused because he doesn’t understand what he’s doing wrong (he isn’t doing anything wrong).
Should I then replace the various stern usages of their names with commands like “leave it”, “drop it”, “back up”, and so on? You certainly could, prefacing each with the troublemaker’s name. “Monkey, back up”. “Arthur, leave it.” All very civilized. But I don’t see anything preferable about it. Since you aren’t doing anything wrong by occasionally using your dog’s name to stop them from doing something, it can save you lots of training time – or at least be a helpful tool on the way to further training. Basically, I’ve shortened the commands “Monkey, leave it” and “Artie, leave it” to tonal variants of their names.
If you’re communicating with your dog in a way that works – and by “works” here I mean creates a calm, peaceful, happy, social, respectful, trusting, and obedient partner – then don’t always worry so much about what you read in the paper.
Trust your instincts. Do what you feel good about.