I was at a dog show last weekend, talking to a few people who had problems with their dogs.
There was a very friendly one-year-old Yorkie mix who nipped – and boy did he nip! He was excited, friendly – and nippy. Every time his owners saw him nip they went ‘Uh-uh’.
They went ‘Uh-uh’ even when he wasn’t actually nipping me, just to warn him in case he nipped me.
If ‘Uh-uh’ worked, why was he still nipping at a year old?
We had a chat about how to show him that keeping his teeth off human flesh was the way to go. I held my hand in a fist and endured the excited nipping until he stopped. I immediately said ‘good’ and fed him with my other hand. I did it several times. Even as I was demonstrating with their little dog there were stifled ‘Uh-uhs’ coming from the lady.
Then another person came over to talk to me about her Collie mix jumping up. This dog, too, was very friendly and, of course, she jumped up!
I’m not sure the dog even heard her. (Actually, I think ‘Uh-uh’ was more for my benefit than the dog’s).
Recently I went to a beautiful Portuguese Water Dog. When I arrived he sniffed my trousers, ‘Uh-uh’. He put his nose in my bag, ‘Uh-uh’.
(Just leave him, I said, I would like to see what he does).
He put his big foot on my lap.
I ask them to try to resist ‘Uh-uh’. People try – they really do. They catch themselves and smile – but it’s like the hiccups. They can’t help it.
What good does it do? It’s like constant nagging to a dog who will likely have switched off long ago.
Another possibility is that a dog is so used to hearing ‘Uh-uh’ when he does something unwanted that he never learns the wanted behaviours. He relies upon trial and error in the knowledge that he will get a warning if he’s doing something they don’t like.
In the course of training, ”Uh-uh’ might be used as a NRM (No Reward Marker) and there are debates about the ethics of this in training.
Melissa Alexander of Karen Prior Training says: ‘…”Uh-uh,” said quietly and calmly, is a common NRM. In a training session, the trainer would either click or use the NRM after each repetition to let the dog know whether his behavior was correct or not…..’
and, ‘….. Another problem with NRMs is that they’re habitual. Once you, as trainer, are in the habit of giving an NRM, you will do so nearly automatically. It can be very, very difficult to break that habit if you need to work with a dog who finds them punishing. NRMs are also habitual for the dogs. They learn to rely on them, expect them. If you get into a situation where you can’t give that expected feedback, the dog can become confused and anxious.’.
So, ethics aside, ‘A NRM is to let the dog know whether his behavior was correct or not‘.
Having a sort of verbal ‘Uh-uh’ tick ignores entirely the ‘correct‘ bit. It’s all about the ‘not‘. It can’t be a No Reward Marker with no rewards involved.
What is it then? ‘Uh-uh’ is a warning. An interrupter. Another way of saying No. Stop.
‘Uh-uh’ may be hiccuped in order to show other people that they really are trying to control their dog, as a sort of face-saver.
I counted one lady I visited who said ‘Uh-uh’ to her dog thirteen times in about ten minutes.
Anyway, if it’s annoying to me and must be even more annoying to a dog!
PS. In the field, I can direct my Cocker Spaniel to a lost ball or other item by playing the ‘hot/cold’ game. Initially I gave a ‘Yes’ in a bright voice when he was heading in the right direction and ‘No’ in less enthusiastic voice when he wasn’t going the right way.
Then I began to leave out the NRM of ‘No’ altogether. I now stay silent when he’s not going in the direction. Relying solely upon the positive ‘Yes’, he actually gets to the ball faster. This cuts out all grey areas.