Positive is Not Permissive – When to Say No

While pondering what to write about for American Brittany Magazine this month, inspiration struck! Several times. In fact, imprinting scent with three 12-week-old pups inspires me daily. Sometimes they make me proud. Sometimes they make me laugh. And sometimes I think how positive is not permissive. When it’s important, I admit I tell my dogs “no”.

Have you embraced the idea of positive training, without questioning the limits? It may seem impolite to ask about dealing with rude behaviors. Even if you’re a rewards-based trainer, there will be some times when even the cutest puppy will cross the line of intolerable behavior, when it’s ok to say no.

For example, if your puppy jumps onto the dinner table to inhale the turkey, don’t just laugh and joke how he’s untrainable! Say no, immediately interrupt him, pick him up and put him back on the floor. Do teach him impulse control (see our video Cookie Zen Part 2, Dog Ignores Pile of Food on the Ground ) This is important for your sanity around the home, as well as important for your scent detection, and all dogsports. If your pup frequently helps himself to dinner on your table, what will he do to the intentional food and toy distractions in searches? Will he ignore the distractions, or dive in and grab them? Behavior in dogsports starts with behavior around the home: they are interrelated in the pup’s mind.

What Inappropriate Behavior?

Puppy escaping from his crate to crawl under cupboards and run into the search area while another dog is searching

If you aren’t supervising, it’s easy to miss serious misbehavior, in both the field and the home. Experienced dog owners know inappropriate behavior when they see it, ideally before it happens. Anticipation and prevention are flawless.

When exploring inappropriate behavior, my examples might not be exactly the same as your priorities. But here are some behaviors to watch for:

  • Nipping so hard it hurts
  • Jumping up to try to grab the food: inside your pocket or hand, on the dinner table or counter
  • Running up your body to rush at your face and/or grab your hair or clothes
  • Urination or defecation while working
  • Humping a human’s leg (I do allow humping toys, as in the photo below)
  • Masturbation in public (Yes, puppies try that, but it’s not conducive to a good performance in dogsports)
  • Destroying belongings or training supplies.

Which behaviors do you allow? Maybe it’s more important to you that your dog doesn’t jump up on people, since he may hurt young children or knock someone down. Keep the items you like, forget the rest, and start planning.

Punishment Free Zone?

During scent dog training, rather than focusing on how to get our scent dogs to stay at source, we focus on how to make scent so rewarding it would be crazy to leave. We don’t force dogs to work; they do it because they love the game. We are known for being motivational and focus on rewards to increase the likelihood that behaviors we like will recur. But there is are specific cases when effective, humane, punishment can be an instructive part of dog training.

Punishment is essentially an action or object reduces the chance that a behavior will recur in future. The punishment may add something obvious like jerking the leash. Or punishment can remove something subtle, like stopping the fun when you give your dog a time out.

Punishment is impossible to avoid altogether. If you don’t think you punish your dog, think again. Every time you end a training session and stop the fun, you are punishing your dog by taking away all the rewards. Be careful you don’t reward the dog with a treat for finding a hide, and then punish him by putting him back in his crate. This may lead to a dog who passes hides because he doesn’t want the game to end. Instead, try a reward event that lasts 30 seconds or more, followed by a play and walk before you crate the dog.

Punishment comes in a vast range of intensity, from mild intensity (like quietly ignoring your dog), to high intensity (like harsh screaming that makes your dog urinate). I strongly prefer, and advocate, the mildest punishment possible on that spectrum.

The art of dog training is choosing when you will punish or reward, and what that will look like. Envisioning potential scenarios in advance may give you some ideas for options when you are shocked by your pup’s misbehavior. You might be picturing poor performance in dogsports, but that’s only one component of your puppy’s life experience. Dig deeper.

When to Draw the Line

So, when should you say no? It’s your responsibility to determine when to draw the line. When in doubt about whether to allow a behavior, ask yourself if it’s something you want your dog to be doing while:

  1. You have guests over for a holiday dinner

    Puppy mouthing my hand
  2. You are appearing on TV, or
  3. You’re competing in dogsports.

One problem is that mouthing by a puppy might not seem so bad, but then he grows up to be a large dog whose mouthing may scare children or hurt someone. That’s not fun any more. Prevention is better than retraining after failure. If you dislike a behavior, then consider doing something to interrupt, stop, or change it. If you don’t know how, get help.

The best case scenario is recognizing when misconduct is about to happen, and interrupting your dog before he makes a mistake. For example, imagine you bring a male dog into a new training class after he has urinated outside, and he stops to sniff the doorway where many dogs have urinated. When he starts to lift his leg to scent mark, you have a great opportunity to give him some feedback, and prevent him from making a mistake. Hopefully, you can get his attention back on you, and continue moving forward. Next time, try heeling past the door so your dog’s attention is on you the entire time.

Nosework is obedience to odor, not obedience with handler focus. But you can’t ignore what the dog does the rest of his life if you want to gel as a team. If this is a formidable challenge because your dog is scent marking around the home, then work through those issues separately, away from scent, where any mistakes are “cheap” because they don’t affect his positive association with target odor. When your dog has high enough drive for nosework, then you will have a better chance of succeeding when a tiny amount of animal scat is present.


Only you can control the environment, not your dog. So if you notice your dog is failing often, and you’re frequently resorting to punishment, think about how you can break things down into smaller, achievable steps you can reward.

This angry faced scent dog is playing with littermates so I’m supervising closely and step in if someone yelps

Like rewards, punishment should fit the dog. For some dogs, petting is a wonderful reward, while other dogs would rather get away and go back to work, so touch may actually be punishment for them. Choose accordingly. If you’re ever in a scenario when you’re confused about whether your dog is behaving aggressively, reactively, or just having fun, seek the help of an experienced trainer to help you decode the canine communication and body language. If you are afraid your dog might bite, if he has already bitten or lunged out of control, or he scares you, you need professional help now!

Assuming your dog is not reactive or aggressive, many high drive dogs who misbehave really need more consistent, daily, mental and physical exercise. “The kennelled dog notices his fleas; the hunting dog notices his prey”.  Like an off switch, misbehavior tends to disappear when the dog is tired and content.

Another effective strategy can be to engage the pup in a training session. For example, instead of roughhousing when your dog pokes you, try five minutes of training sits and recalls. That will create a new and productive way of spending time together, harnessing his drive in a way that’s enjoyable to both parties. Nosework provides mental and physical exercise and that reinforcement history makes it easier to train your dog to perform any skill.

Drawing the line on inappropriate behavior should carefully consider the dog in question. For example, my softest, inexperienced 12-week-old puppy was barking at me today in between nosework searches. I ignored it. I was happy that he was searching in a distracting new training environment, and getting fired up about the work. When he was busy sniffing during searches he was quiet, so the barking didn’t significantly impacting on our work. In addition to socialization, my  priority is motivating him to search for scent, so I let him bark. But if I was training his experienced, high drive, 12-year-old grandmother, and she chose to bark and spin instead of searching, I would definitely take her by the collar and remove the reinforcement, then restart. That way, I would not allow her to rehearse unwanted barking and spinning that would hurt our work in future, if cemented into the context of nosework.

When I give the cue to search, I want my dog to go directly to the first object and start searching immediately, with intense focus. I need to control the environment and structure our training to set every dog up for success, simultaneously prevent nipping, urination, and destroying objects. I want to practice only behaviors I want, and none that I don’t. Perfect practice leads to perfect performance.

About Punishment

Punishment should also fit the “crime”. Overreacting may be counterproductive, because even negative attention can be reinforcing. For example, if your scent dog picks up hides or pylons marking the search boundaries and zooms around, screaming and chasing him is probably not the best response. He might think it’s fun and repeat the keep away game it in future. Once built into muscle memory, such misbehavior would be very detrimental to the team’s performance, and highly demotivational for the handler. Similarly, yelling at a very soft dog may cause urination, a sign that the punishment was too harsh. A more neutral, yet effective punishment is in order.

Once you decide to punish, don’t just tell your dog no, and keep repeating yourself while he continues to misbehave. That amps up the excitement and escalates the unproductive conflict. Show your dog what you want him to do instead. For example, if the puppy repeatedly nips your hands while tugging, try interrupting the behavior and choosing a tug toy with a longer handle or a ball on a rope. Or bring down the drive by using food rewards so you can succeed now. Once the behavior is learned, gradually build the arousal level again.

So, what does punishment look like? Let’s take the example of the first time a puppy tries to hump my leg. I interrupt him right away, saying “no”, in a low-pitched gruff tone of voice. I take the puppy by the collar, gently remove him from my leg or the object, and tell him that’s awful. If he repeats the behavior, I stubbornly repeat my response, but louder and more emphatically. And if he decides to continue to try to hump me yet again, all the fun stops. I end his opportunity for reinforcement by confining him by himself in a safe area of the house where he is punished by being alone for a short time. In the case of humping, it rarely recurs. It’s important to nip those bad behaviors in the bud, before they become grounded as habits that you endure long-term.

Similarly, if your scent dog starts to urinate during a search, recognize that it’s your fault for not allowing sufficient time outdoors for potty before starting the search. Regardless, you don’t want to reinforce the urination by continuing to search. Interrupt his urination by saying no, gently take him by the collar and go outside to urinate in an appropriate location nearby. Then consider crating your dog for a timeout to reset. After 5-10 minutes, retry or modify for an easier search, such as the warmup boxes in nosework, away from the smells of urine. You know what you have to do in future in order to succeed.

What If It Becomes a Habit?

Puppies that repeatedly rehearse destroying boxes and household objects may be inclined to repeat that behavior with objects in searches

Failing to address inappropriate behavior can have far-reaching, unforeseen consequences. For example, years ago, I observed a competitor’s small dog humping her arm when she carried him to the start line, and hump her leg while she was talking to others. I imagine she was astounded the first time that behavior occurred, and did nothing. They were focussed on learning agility, not on foundational obedience. But as the inappropriate humping recurred, and continued to be ignored, it became and embarrassing habit. It certainly wasn’t fun for the handler and I think it harmed their relationship. She may have taken her dog more places if he behaved more appropriately. Once entrenched, it was difficult to retrain. They got by, minimizing the fallout. If she realized what would happen if the first behavior went unaddressed, I wonder if she would have responded differently and far sooner?

Having said that, some handlers opt to correct harshly, so their dog is hurt, scared and turned them off their work. You can go too far towards being overly disciplinarian just as easily as you can go too far in laughing and encouraging misbehavior. Aim for the middle ground. Consider a mild, immediate “punishment” that is just sufficient to stop inappropriate behavior. If you can’t prevent inappropriate behavior, try to prevent recurrence, without scaring the dog or breaking down his trust in you. Then don’t hold a grudge (your dog doesn’t) and focus on training the behaviors you want. Playing is a great stress reliever and scent dog training should be fun.

It’s About Your Relationship With Your Unique Dog

When your dog behaves inappropriately, the words you say and the exact way you interrupt are less important than recognizing pivotal formative events and dealing with them promptly. Choose what works best for you and your unique dog. But ignore huge mistakes at your peril! If an intolerable behavior recurs 2 or 3 times, you may need the help of an experienced trainer, who can help you work towards achieving your goals. On the other hand, if the dog’s mistake is not important to you, then  smile and move on. When you have a great relationship with your dog, you share more fulfilling lives.

Think I got it all wrong? Drop me a line about how your pup made you to wonder about punishment, or just made you chuckle. Even better, share some photos, please!


  • To learn how to address nipping and common puppy problems, and train basic obedience, I love Zak George. Check out “How to Correct Your Dog’s BAD Behavior” at: https://youtu.be/eUAqezRTCCY?t=11m9s, or
    How to Train a Puppy NOT to Bite: https://youtu.be/m9KQegi4r8k
  • Harness drive and build your relationship by tugging with your puppy: https://youtu.be/UxinN1JS0XU
  • Distraction training for scent dogs https://nosework.huntersheart.com/2017/03/09/scent-work-distractions-training/
  • For an evidence based approach to rewards and punishment, read Pamela Reid’s, Excel-Erated Learning, Explaining in Plain English How Dogs Learn and How Best to Teach Them
  • Learn what to watch for  when your puppy is interacting with children, recognizing tolerance vs. warning behaviors that require supervision and may precede a bite – Colleen Pelar’s Living with Kids and Dogs… Without Losing Your Mind: A Parent’s Guide to Controlling Chaos





Ask a question or leave a comment

%d bloggers like this: