Teaching a puppy ‘no’ is an important part of their training for some people, but it can be challenging to do it in a way that is clear and productive. While ‘no’ is a simple word, it’s often considered to be a loaded phrase that people feel hesitant to use. This is because it’s a broad term that doesn’t provide much guidance to your dog on what to do instead. 

Additionally, ‘no’ can be overused or delivered in a harsh tone, leading to confusion and frustration for both you and your puppy. So, it’s natural to question whether or not teaching your dog ‘no’ is the right choice.

Let’s not worry. Here at Zigzag, we’re going to help figure this one out. We’ll tell you why we think your puppy should be taught the cue ‘no’, and what we think it means when we say it to puppies. We’ll also teach you how to teach your puppy the equivalent of a cue like ‘no’, but in a much better, kinder way for everyday situations.

Once you’re done with this article, you’re going to want to get your puppy training journey off to the best start with the Zigzag puppy training app. We have personalised lessons based on your puppy’s age, breed and your lifestyle, so you’re all ready and set for success. Oh, and our amazing team of professional dog trainers are always ready to help you with any questions or hiccups you may have every day of the week. What’s better than that?

dogs getting treats
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Why does my puppy need to know “no”?

Teaching a puppy a cue to stop what they’re doing and do something else is very useful. Essentially, ‘no’ means you’re able to direct and manage them when you need to. Puppies are curious, and your guidance can help prevent them from getting into trouble. 

This is why it’s important to teach your dog the word ‘no’ or a similar cue. See? There’s a good reason behind it. You won’t be the fun police for nothing.

Defining what “no” means for puppies

For humans, ‘No’ means ‘I don’t want you to do that, stop it’. Pretty straightforward. But for many puppies, the ‘no’ cue gets overused, and we’re likely to use a gruff tone and get overly emotional. It’s okay, we’re only human, but still. We can do better. 

We mention this very adamantly throughout our blogs and lessons, but dogs learn better without negative emotions in training, so our focus is to train in a ‘redirecting cue’ rather than a ‘no cue’. Therefore, here at Zigzag, we teach puppies to ‘leave it’ as it gives dogs more options and opportunities to do something else.

How to teach your puppy “no”

To teach your puppy or dog ‘no’, the key is to teach them to disengage from something, and reward them for doing so. 

So here’s how you do it. We’ll show you how to teach your puppy ‘no’ in easy steps; don’t worry about the ‘no’ cue yet, we’ll get to ask them at the end.

Set yourself up to start the teach a puppy no exercise

Grab a comfy chair and a handful of dry dog food or low value treats. We don’t want to make it too tempting for our puppy. Have some high-value treats nearby, you’ll need these for later.

Pop your hand on your knee with the food inside your closed fist

Your puppy’s likely going to sniff, lick your hand, or maybe even nibble it; which you should simply ignore for now. If your puppy is biting hard or being too rough, lower the value of the food reward, or take your hand away for a few seconds.

Be patient and wait

As soon as your puppy leaves your hand alone, say a marker word like ‘good’ and then pick up a treat and give it to them with the opposite hand. This will help them to disengage from the thing they so desperately want.

Keep repeating until they work it out

Your puppy will quickly learn that if they want the thing, they need to leave the thing alone! Yep, pretty contradictory for a young brain to process. Training takes time and practise, but they’ll get there soon enough. Dogs learn through repetition, so give them time to solve the puzzle here. They’ll work out what they need to do to get what they want…eventually.

Start rewarding them when they’re not trying to get it

To stop this from becoming a ‘sniff at your hand then pull away to get the treat game’ you’ll want to start rewarding your puppy for being relaxed, and not trying to sniff or lick or paw at your hand. 

Did they succeed? Great, use your marker word, ‘good’ and feed a treat with the other hand. 

Start opening your hand

Keep your hand facing upwards and held on your knee. Start opening your hand, but be ready to close it if your puppy tries to get the treat. No need to say anything, the closing of the hand is all the feedback they need. You know – actions speak louder than words.

Reward your puppy for leaving the open hand

Now, it’s time to keep your hand open. This is quite tricky as it can look really tempting for a dog! But we’re sure your puppy is doing amazing. Or they will…eventually.

dog with ball in mouth
Photo by Chris Andrawes on Unsplash

Gradually lower your hand

You want to get your hand to the floor, but try not to rush this bit. Otherwise, it looks like you’re offering the treat to your puppy. Each time you bring your hand out, just take it a bit further towards the floor. If your puppy finds it too tricky and tries to grab it, calmly close your hand and take it away. The next time you bring it out, don’t take it slow so that your puppy gets lots of opportunities to get it right.

Remember to reward with the opposite hand

Rewarding them with the other hand when teaching your puppy ‘no’ is great for spatial awareness, and teaching them to never take the treat out of the hand that’s moving to the floor.

Use the ‘leave it’ cue before you bring your hand out

Now that your puppy isn’t trying to furiously get the treat, we can introduce a little cue that means: ‘leave that I’ve got something better for you’ – and not quite a ‘no’. 

Say ‘leave it’ before you bring your hand out, if your puppy leaves it, say ‘good’ and give them the treat (with the other hand, remember?).

Place the food on the floor

Take a piece of dry food or a low-value treat, place it on the floor and cover it with your hand. Say ‘leave it’ and lift your hand to one side – if your puppy leaves it, say ‘good’ and give them a high-value treat. See? You’re pulling off the ‘leave that I have something better for you’ plan perfectly!

Practice this several times until you don’t need to cover the food

You can now say ‘leave it’, place the treat on the floor and your puppy won’t try and grab it. Hurrah! 

Make it a tad more challenging for your puppy by dropping the treat before saying ‘leave it’. This will be hard for them, so be sure your puppy has many successful goes at leaving treats on the floor before dropping it.

Generalisation time

To fully teach your puppy ‘no’ or ‘leave it’, you’ll need to practise in lots of different environments and with different objects or temptations. Let’s be honest, you’ll probably need to use this skill a lot more when you’re out at the park. Lots of squirrels to chase there.

When you’re going through the training steps, you’ll want to use rewards your dog really loves, so they learn that when you say no (or in our case ‘leave it’), they’ll get something good instead. This might be high-value foods like hot dogs or cheese, but your dog might be more easily seduced by a toy, or a game of tug or fetch

Later on, once they get older, you can switch to using treats and toys for verbal praise, ear scratches if they like them, or a game of chase. But it’s still worth chucking a treat in every now and again to keep the cue strong.

dog smiling
Photo by Reed Shepherd on Unsplash

How to incorporate the puppy command ‘no’ into daily life

To teach your puppy ‘no’ in everyday life, you’ll need to practise the cue and reward them for responding appropriately. There will be lots of different situations in that we might want to teach a puppy no or be tempted to say it, we’ll use the leave it cue instead.

Here are a few ideas to start you off:

  • Grab some plastic boxes with lids and pop some food in them. Then, walk past and say “leave it”, if your dog looks at you (without lunging at the treat), hand them a treat. You can then practise using your ‘leave it’ cue around takeaway or fried chicken boxes…those would probably still smell like chicken throughout an apocalypse.
  • Say “leave it” and put a toy on the floor. Make sure this toy isn’t one of your dog’s favourites, so it makes it really easy for them to leave. If they leave it, then reward them with a treat.
  • Say “leave it” when your dog goes to sniff something you don’t want them to. If they do, hand them a treat. 
  • Say “leave it” if your dog goes to pull you somewhere when they’re on the lead, give them a treat when they look back at you, and reward them.
  • Say ‘leave it’ when your puppy goes to chew something they shouldn’t, and redirect them onto something they can sink their teeth in without anybody getting upset, like a toy or a suitable chew. Puppy teething doesn’t last forever (thank goodness), but in the meantime, it means we have to keep an eye out for our belongings getting teeth marks.

As you can see, teaching a dog ‘no’ is an important thing to do. It doesn’t make you a boring puppy parent at all! You’re simply teaching them what’s a good way to behave and to stop doing something we ask them to. Rather than using ‘no’, we’re using ‘leave it’, and giving them a much better idea of what we’d like them to do instead.

Using the actual word ‘no’ can get confusing and frustrating for puppies, so in the end, ‘leave it’, is actually a much smarter way to get your dog to learn what it is you mean

Just keep practising. With repetition, patience and consistency, your puppy will pick it up in no time. Once they’ve mastered the lesson at home (where there are fewer distractions), teach them generalising skills by practising the lesson in different places and with different rewards. Only then is when they’ve actually got it, by the way. You’ll soon realise there’s much more use for ‘leave it’ outside than indoors! Make sure to keep your tone light and happy, as dogs respond much better to us when we’re not gruff. It makes you feel much better as well – you probably don’t like yourself either when you’re grumpy. 

Ah, there! Have you enjoyed our guidance? Please don’t say no. 

If you’re eager to know more, we recommend our training games library. There’s a bunch of stuff in there, from enrichment to scent work, to recall, to loose lead walking. Oh, and by the way, if your dog already has something in their mouths, then why not teach them to ‘drop it’? And yes, there is a difference to ‘leave it’.
Better download the Zigzag app while you’re at it. You’ll find a world of more in-depth content and lessons to help you raise a wonderful puppy, and a team of wonderful professional dog trainers who are able to give you pointers and help you with your puppy questions at all times. 24/7, to be precise.