We all know dogs are smart, but I recently learned that their intelligence goes beyond their ability to quickly learn different commands. Ones like “sit” and “come” and “stay”. My Alaskan shepherd, Eira, learned those within her first week home. But I wondered if there was something more I could teach her. Something that required complex thought. That’s when I stumbled across an article about cognitive dog training—about teaching your dog how to answer questions with a “yes” or a “no”.
It’s not the trick where you wave a treat up and down and say “yes” and then wave it side-to-side to say “no”, so that it looks like your dog is nodding and shaking her head like a human. That trick, while fun, is purely for the enjoyment of whoever’s watching.
Cognitive dog training, on the other hand, is for the dog’s benefit. It assumes that your dog has her own opinion about what she’d like in life. Teaching your dog how to truly answer yes or no to questions gives her autonomy, and it makes her think.
Think about it: do you like when you have a choice in whether you go outside or stay in? Or whether you play with a green tennis ball toy or a Kong stuffed animal (or neither, since you’re a human)? So does your dog!
I decided to hone in on Eira’s complex thinking skills and come up with a way to give her a way to answer “yes” or “no” to any question I asked. By following the steps we took, you’ll be able to teach your dog to have a say in his life.
As a bonus, you’ll sidestep some of the whining and barking that comes when your dog has only his voice box to get your attention.
Eager to start learning!
Tasty Treats Are (As Always) The Key To Success
Eira adores turkey jerky. For our training, I broke one piece of jerky into smaller pieces. Use whatever treat appeals the most to your dog and crumble or squish it a little bit. Put it in a bowl and set it on the counter, or a nearby table. Make sure your dog sees the bowl of treats and knows where it is.
Wash your hands so that they don’t have any trace of the treat on them. Now pick one hand to be the “yes” hand. I chose my left hand. Without touching the treat with your non-yes hand, smush your “yes” hand into the treat bowl. You want it to smell nice and meaty.
Get your dog’s attention if you don’t already have it, and point to the bowl of treats. Ask your dog, “Do you want a treat? Yes, or no?” and then hold out both palms. One will have treat residue on it, and the other won’t.
Eira sniffs my treat-residue hand, or my “yes” hand.
Your dog might sniff both hands, but she’ll probably start licking your “yes” hand because of the treat crumbs. (If she doesn’t focus on your “yes” hand, find a more compelling treat.) As soon as she turns her attention on the “yes” hand, say “Yes, you do want a treat. Yes!”
Give your dog a treat from the bowl. Repeat this process several times, always pointing to the bowl, asking your dog if she wants a treat, “yes, or no”.
Eira started completely skipping the non-treat hand and licking the “yes” hand, even though I didn’t add treat residue to it again after that first time. She learned quickly that licking my hand would get her a treat.
Finding Out What Will Mean “No”
While the treat exercise is a good starting point to teach your dog how to say yes or no, you have to dive deeper.
Dogs are about at the level of a two-year-old human, cognition-wise. Some are smarter than others, but in general they can learn upwards of 100 words. I have a two-year-old, and he’s smart. He knows what he wants. He can answer yes or no. He has strong opinions about things.
So I decided to work on finding out what meant “no” for Eira. Some dogs might decide that sniffing your non-treat hand means “no”, while others will find that too confusing.
Again, I asked a question I knew Eira would probably have clear opinions about.
While pointing at the back door, I said, “Eira, do you want to go outside? Yes, or no?” I held out both hands, wondering if she’d lick the empty hand or go for the hand that still smelled like treats.
She did neither! My pup turned around and trotted to the couch. I took that as a clear NO! I do not want to go outside.
Eira’s clear “no!” when I asked if she wanted to go outside: she walked AWAY from the back door.
I tried this several more times, and every single time I asked her if she wanted to go outside, Eira turned and walked away from me (and the back door).
To find out what body language your dog uses to say “no”, ask her a question that you know she will want to express negative feelings for. Some examples are…
- Pointing to her bed or crate and saying, “Do you want to go night-night?” Unless she’s completely exhausted, your pup probably won’t want to go to sleep before you do.
- Holding up a toy he just never fell in love with and asking, “Want this toy?”
- Snuggling up with your pooch on the couch and saying, “Want to get down?” (What pup would end a cuddle session early?)
Watch your dog’s body language. Look for consistency. Does she always turn and leave, like my dog? Or does she look away? Or even howl in consternation?
Each time your pup does her “no” cue, say that word aloud. Make sure to differentiate this “no” from the “no” that means “don’t do that” (i.e., don’t chew the cabinets!). You can do this by saying, in a conversational tone, “Oh, you don’t want to go outside. You said no.”
Throughout your day, consistently teach your pup that your left (or right) hand means “yes”, and follow her cues for “no”. After about a week of focusing on helping her learn “yes” and “no”, you can ask her something that will tap into her problem-solving skills.
Over the course of a week, Eira started to really like my left hand—my “yes” hand. I continued to use it for simple questions until she seemed ready for something bigger.
For example, have you ever wondered if your pup is comfortable with her nighttime sleeping arrangements? Maybe you should ask her. In the morning, greet her with your hands held out and say, “Did you sleep well?”
When I asked Eira this, she did not lick my “yes” hand. Instead, she turned away. I looked in her crate (where she sleeps at night) and discovered that I’d forgotten to put her sleeping pad inside!
I fixed that quickly, and the next morning she was happy and rested. She licked my “yes” hand when I asked her how she’d slept and then wandered to the counter, looking for the treat bowl.
Here are more complex questions you can ask your dog. Make sure, before you ask them, that your dog knows how much you love him. No pup likes to be yelled at (even for a chewed shoe) and it might even lighten your mood if he answers honestly about what antics he’s been up to.
- Did you eat my shoe?
- Are you still hungry?
- Would you like to ride in the car with me?
- Do you need to go potty?
- Does that sound scare you?
Questions like this will invite connection with your dog. She’ll know you care about how she’s feeling, and she’ll be happy to make communication between you easier.
Or sometimes, she’ll find other ways of making her desires clear.
One afternoon I tried to do my usual cognitive training session with Eira, but she wasn’t having any of it. My husband was outside with our toddler. Since we’d recently rearranged the living room so that Eira’s favorite couch is in front of the window, she could see them outside.
Eira stares longingly out the window.
I laughed, because I knew what she was telling me: “I do not want to train! I want to go play.” She was saying “no” to training—not even a treat in my “yes” hand could convince her to stay inside.
And so, of course, we went outside.
As Always, Be Patient With Your Dog
Patience and kindness win the race. Make sure your pup always knows you love her, whether or not she picks it up quickly when you teach her to say yes or no. Remember, the point of teaching her to answer questions is to make her life easier—not to put on a show.
This evening I asked Eira if she’d like to do some yes/no learning and take some pictures. She politely snuggled into the couch and reached her paw out to my yes hand. Here’s what I understood: Eira wanted to please me, but she also wanted to relax and take a nice, long nap.
So I let her nap.
Eira giving me a complex answer: yes, I’ll get up if you want me to, but I’d rather not.