Should Your Dog Be Allowed to Say No?

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Should your dog be allowed to say no? In a word: yes.

In some corners of the dog training world, this is still a pretty radical idea. Dogs are supposed to “obey” commands, and if they don’t, it’s a sign of “disrespect.”

But there are many reasons to allow and even teach a dog to say no.

Perhaps the most obvious example is what service dog trainers call intelligent disobedience. These dogs, whose reliability is life-or-death, actually need to be able to make independent judgments about what’s safe for themselves and their handlers. For instance, if the blind handler of a guide dog cues the dog to step off the curb, but there’s a car coming, the dog should refuse.

One could argue, though, that all disobedience is intelligent: the dog has assessed the situation based on the facts available and decided it’s not safe or simply not worthwhile to do a certain behavior. We humans do this all day every day, and it’s kind of insane that we expect dogs not to. The ability to use your behavior to get things you want and feel safe is critical to mental health for all species. When we are unable to do so, we become frustrated, aggressive, apathetic, or depressed. And most captive animals, including pets, start with a big deficit of control right out of the gate.

Dogs have lots of polite ways to signal that they would prefer not to engage with something or someone—that they don’t find an interaction worthwhile or safe. But humans, who frequently don’t recognize these subtle ways of saying no, tend to inadvertently punish them, often by just plowing ahead with the interaction or procedure. So dogs can quickly learn that the only truly effective way to say no—be it to a nail trim or to the approach of another dog—is to snarl, snap, lunge, or bite.

While the main goal of training is frequently to get a dog to say yes, it can also be extremely helpful to teach him how to say no in an acceptable way. Letting someone say no actually often seems to increase his or her willingness to say yes. It helps build trust, which for animals we might define as Susan Friedman does (in this article for parrot owners) as “a level of sureness that interacting with people produces safe outcomes.”

Many excellent trainers have been doing some form of this for ages, especially in the zoo and aquarium world, where training is used to teach animals to participate in their own care with as little stress as possible. These trainers make it very worthwhile for the animals to work with them, but the animals are also allowed to leave the session whenever they choose. And when they do, it’s viewed as valuable information for the trainer.

My colleague Laura Monaco Torelli of Animal Behavior Training Concepts has spent the last seven years developing a program to bring this approach, which she first learned at the Shedd Aquarium, over to dog training. You can see some of her most recent videos using a chin rest as a way for dogs to opt in to various husbandry procedures at the Ready, Set for Groomer and Vet Facebook page. Though the dogs in her videos don’t opt out often, due to her carefully graduated steps, she regularly “resets” them during sessions to see if they choose to come back.

Similarly, British trainer Chirag Patel has developed what he calls the Bucket Game, in which a dog learns to keep his eyes on a bucket of treats, and then to do so during husbandry procedures. The dog is empowered to stop the procedure at any time by turning away from the bucket, while continuing to stare at it constitutes consent. A San Diego-based trainer, Dearing English, has put together a detailed webinar on her use of the Bucket Game.

One of my favorite bloggers, Eileen Anderson, has popularized a “consent test” for petting—which not all dogs enjoy in all forms from all people.

And last month at ClickerExpo, my favorite presentation was a joint talk by Swedish trainers Eva Bertilsson and Emelie Johnson Vegh and horse trainer Peggy Hogan. They discussed systematic ways to teach dogs, horses, birds, and kids to make requests (such as to go outside or for the water bowl to be refilled), express preferences (such as which perch to step onto), and “push a start button” on a procedure (such as eye cleaning or medication). Here’s a video that shows Peggy working with a miniature horse who has learned that he can control the pace and progress of eye care by either pressing his face into her hand or turning his head.

Working for Animal Behavior Training Concepts, I recently collaborated with Rover-Time dog walker Matt to help a mutual client, Calvin, who was uncomfortable having his leash clipped to his harness and expressed his discomfort by growling and snapping at Matt. (Note that in any such situation, contributing medical factors should be ruled out or addressed before starting training.)

We observed behaviors Calvin was already doing, and essentially, we just made the outcomes for each very predictable for him. Freezing or backing away would always produce an immediate removal of the leash (and the hand holding it), while looking at the leash clip and then at the handler would give the handler permission to proceed. Here are the steps we worked through—first me, then Matt:

Preparation: Handler sits in a chair to avoid looming over Calvin, and a path is clear for Calvin to walk away if he wants. The handler has some of Calvin’s food in one hand and the leash clip in the other. (Normally I would use higher value treats, but Calvin has major dietary restrictions.)

Teaching the “no” behavior:

  • Handler presents leash clip out to Calvin’s side, far enough away that he is not prompted to growl or snap. (If he does, the leash is removed, but we restart farther away.)
  • If Calvin freezes or backs away, even slightly, handler immediately removes the leash from sight. Backing away is ideal; leaving is the best thing a dog can do if he’s worried, and it’s incompatible with biting.

Teaching the “yes” behavior:

  • In the same sessions, if Calvin glances at the clip without moving away, handler immediately presents multiple pieces of food in a row right in front of Calvin, then removes the leash and the food at the same time.
  • Because the food always appears in front of him, Calvin will begin to look forward after glancing at the leash, in anticipation of the food.

With repetition, the presentation of the leash was becoming a cue to look at the clip, then look forward. The food reinforced this behavior, and also created positive associations with the presence of the leash.

Once Calvin was reliably responding this way, we began gradually presenting the leash closer to the harness, until Calvin was giving us “permission” to bring the leash within a few inches of his harness.

Finally we added clipping: if Calvin looked at the clip and then forward at the handler, the handler would then clip the leash to the harness.

  • Present the leash a few inches from the harness and wait for the dog to look at it, then look forward.
  • When he looks forward, begin feeding.
  • Clip the leash to his harness while continuing to feed.
  • Continue to feed for a few more seconds after clipping the leash on, while sliding hand away from the harness.
  • If Calvin backs away or freezes, stop immediately and remove both the leash and the food.

At this stage, it would have been ideal for the food to come just after the leash was clipped to the harness, instead of before and during, so we could be extra sure about construing the head-forward behavior as permission to clip.

But Matt was going to have to take over after just one training session, and so I opted for a slightly cruder plan that kept Calvin’s mouth busy and created strong associations between the entire leashing process and the food.

Calvin’s owner, Catherine, also took the brave step of agreeing that if Calvin did opt out of a session, or had a lot of trouble saying “yes,” he simply would not be walked that day. Forcing the issue and leashing him anyway would break the trust Matt was building and sacrifice long-term goals for short-term gains.

It’s been almost exactly a month since we trained this procedure, and happily, Matt reports Calvin has not growled or snapped at him since.


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Learn more about or contact Kiki Yablon at Dog Training by Kiki Yablon.

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Comments (2)

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[…] Allow your dog that same option. Being touched by anyone should be the dog’s choice. Please read this article for a better understanding on this […]

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[…] The largest part of safety needs, however, can often be feeling safe in saying "no" to interactions. This is the one that creates so many problems with an abundance of clients. Dogs have the right to have a say in what happens with their own bodies and whether they want to interact with anyone, emergency needs aside. Unfortunately, this isn’t a luxury that many dog parents allow their dogs. That creates a huge problem with feeling safe. Teaching dog parents how to keep their dogs feeling safe is a part of almost all client sessions. It is the number one rule that I expect to be followed as part of my instructions to clients. Yet it’s one of the ones that is most frequently overlooked. More on that subject here. […]

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