Learning From Improv: Lessons For Your Dog And You

Have you ever watched a comedy improv performance? One person starts a riff, the second performer carries it on, and soon the situation takes on a life of its own.

How do they think of these things? And how do they keep it going with other people? Are they mind readers?

No, not mind readers. But improv performers do practice. And they practice following basic rules that make them more likely to take their improvisations in a funny direction.

One of those rules has a lot of wisdom. And it’s worth applying the lessons for your dog and for you.

Honey the golden retriever sits with her tongue hanging out.

We improvised our walk, climbed a big hill, and now I’m exhausted.

Always Say Yes

An improvisation won’t last long if someone on stage decides not to go with the first performer’s idea.

For example, if a performer starts by saying, “Nice day we’re having” and her partner replies, “Yup” they’ve just stopped the action. “Yup” doesn’t go anywhere. Even though their answer was yes, they might as well have said no.

One rule in improv is to always reply “yes, and” to any idea another performer puts forth. By replying with a “yes, and,” you’re able to move the improvisation forward.

Some examples of “yes, and” answers to “Nice day we’re having” include

  • “Sure, if you like having locusts in your pants.”
  • “Yeah, I love starting my day in a lifeboat.”
  • “It is a nice day. Just the right kind of weather for murdering my wife.”

Okay, it might not be your kind of humor. But do you see how the “yes, and” responses give the performer something to play off? All three of my responses suggest different directions the improvisation could go. The performer has something to work with.

Honey the golden retriever naps in her crate.

Time to say yes to a nap.

But what does this mean for our relationship with our dog? Are we really going to start a comedy act with our pups and take it on the road (if you do, please send me an email; I’d love to see it)?

No, but I think our bonds with our dogs will be stronger if we practice saying “yes, and.”

Say Yes To Your Dog

If you spend enough time on training websites, you’ll notice something about the questions dog people ask:

  • How can I keep my dog from pulling on his leash?
  • What will make my dog stop eating food off the counters?
  • Why won’t my dog stop barking?

Do you notice what those questions have in common? They’re all negative. Most of the time when people consult a trainer, they’re asking for help to stop their dog from doing something they don’t want her to do.

Honey the golden retriever at bath time.

Just want you to know, I’m not saying yes to a bath. I am saying yes to the liverwurst you put on the side of the tub.

But as wise woman, Jessica, pointed out recently in her blog,  My Imperfect Dogyou can’t reward a dog away from doing a behavior. You can only punish a dog away from a behavior. And who wants to punish her dog?

The answer is to decide what you want your dog to do instead of the behavior you don’t like. And the first step is to rephrase the training question to a positive so you can figure out what behavior you’re rewarding. How about asking:

  • How can I make my dog walk beside me? Or, how can I get my dog to check in with me even if he’s walking ahead or behind me?
  • What will convince my dog to stay on her pillow in the kitchen while I’m cooking instead of grabbing things off the counter when I turn around?
  • How can I teach my dog to come get me when he sees something startling outside instead of barking his head off?

Once you rephrase the question in terms of a positive behavior you want to reinforce, you’ve just taken a giant leap forward in communicating with your dog. Because dogs want to do what pleases us. They just don’t want to stop doing what’s normal dog behavior (pulling, scrounging for food, alarm barking) unless they know they can get a better reward by doing something else.

Let me tell you how learning to say yes to my dog Honey helped me solve one problem.

Honey the golden retriever at Ithaca Falls.

You want me to say yes to swimming? What? Do you think I have a death wish?

Training A Dog With A Death Wish

I’ve never had to worry about Honey counter-surfing. It’s just not a behavior she’s ever thought of.

But she is very food motivated. When I cooked, Honey would weave between my legs while I handled hot pots, pulled heavy casseroles out of the oven, and sharpened my knives.

Did I tell you I’m a klutz? My dog must have had a death wish.

But nothing I did to discourage her worked. Until I figured out how to say “yes, and.”

I placed a bed on the opposite side of the kitchen and taught Honey how to go there. (Check out this short video describing how to teach your dog to “go to bed.”

To keep her on the bed while I cooked, I’d occasionally toss her a piece of cheese or a vegetable. Now when I start cooking Honey goes right to her bed and stays there until I finish.

By learning from improv how to say “yes, and” to my dog instead of “no” made me happier and trained her away from her death wish.

Honey the Golden Retriever lies on her pillow.

You’ll always find me lying on my pillow in the kitchen. I’d hate to miss one of those flying treats that comes my way.

Life Lessons From Improv

Learning how to say “yes, and” to Honey was so effective I wondered if I needed to learn from improv myself.

One of my biggest pet peeves is when people say, “Oh, I could never do that.” Hearing it sets my teeth on edge.

And when something annoys me about other people, I know it’s time to look deep inside to see if the reason it annoys me is because I do it myself.

Yep, sure enough. I do.

Over my life, I can think of many times I’ve said to myself that I just couldn’t do something. And because of it, I’ve missed out on some wonderful experiences and opportunities.

Honey the Golden Retriever is a kayaking dog.

Honey and I are very happy we’ve both said yes to kayaking.

Now when I think of doing something I couldn’t possibly do, I try to figure out how to answer it with a “yes, and” to keep the conversation going instead of just shutting it down.

Here’s an example.

I have the chance to take a few long trips by myself. The thought of driving fast on highways in a rental car I barely know fills me with anxiety. Part of me wants to say no. No, not no. Hell, no!

But what if I learn from improv? Can I keep the improvisation going by finding a way to answer “yes, and?”

  • Yes, I’ll go and I’ll plan a route that keeps me off busy highways even if it takes me longer.
  • Yes, and I’ll look into taking a train or bus.
  • Yes, and I’ll advertise for someone to share the ride with me to keep me company and do some of the driving.

Answering myself with “yes, and” opened up several possibilities I might not have thought of if I hadn’t learned from improv.

Honey the Golden Retriever is training new sailing skills.

And sailing.

Saying Yes To Your Dog And Yourself

As I’ve gotten older, I find “yes” the most beautiful word.

One of my favorite authors, E. M. Forster wrote: “By the side of the everlasting Why there is a Yes–a transitory Yes if you like, but a Yes.”

Improv teaches us that saying “yes, and” leads to a good performance. Finding out how to say yes to my dog builds our bond. And saying yes to myself opens me to new opportunities.

Maybe if I keep saying “yes, and” I’ll improvise a very good life.

Your Turn: Can you think of a time when you said “yes, and” to yourself or your dog? How did it work out?


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  1. My college Shakespeare professor pointed out that comedy lives in a world of “both/and,” while tragedy is “neither/nor.”

    We’ve got to live in the Both/And. Or, as you put it, the Yes/And. There’s so much more happiness in that world.

    • What a wonderful idea. I’d much rather live in a comedy then a tragedy.

      BTW, thank you for inspiring my post. I just loved your thoughts on positive and negative/punishment and reward. It was a very wise post.

  2. Great advice for people and dogs alike. I think we are pretty good at saying Yes…and for all of us.

  3. One thing that comes to mind is changing the way I walk with Haley. I used to not like to stop that often to let her sniff around but it was a constant struggle to keep her from wanting to stop. Now, I plan a few stops early in the walk for her to take a few moments and check out the new smells, then she’s good for me during the rest of the walk. Win/Win!

    • That’s great awareness. Sounds like it worked out for both of you.

      I had to do the same thing when I used to run with my dogs. I kept getting irritated because they had to stop every ten minutes. But then I realize how selfish I was by not letting them check their p-mail before we started running.

  4. One of the things my ex was brilliant at was saying ‘Yes and’, he could do spontaneous and it was one of his qualities that I loved and really missed. Especially as he brought me along for the ride!

    This is something I don’t want to stop, so I think it may be time to start saying ‘yes and’ again but this time all by myself. Thanks you the kick up the butt I needed!

    • I wonder if you should take some time to look for times you’ve said “yes, and” on your own. Your solo drive to visit your friends and your new home are two occasions that come to my mind.

  5. I once took an improv class and found the “yes, and…” method helped personal relationships immensely. I had not thought of trying it with my dogs, or with life experiences in general! I have no doubt “yes, and…” improv will improve life quality. My dogs thank you too. They’ve been demonstrating “yes, and…” for years.

    • It’s great that you found this method helped you with people. And yes, dogs are fabulous about saying yes and eagerly greeting the next cool thing.

  6. Mom does that with herself all the time. She has thought it over and does do it occasionally with us, but not consciously, I think she may do more of it after reading this, though. It makes sense.

  7. Excellent idea, Pamela. So instead of, “How can I get Pierson to quit being so upset when he sees another dog?” I can say, “How can I get Pierson to pay attention to me instead of another dog?” Honey in the kitchen is a great example and is a problem I have with Maya too. What a great idea to move her bed to the kitchen so she can still watch without being in the way. Pierson will want in on this too, by the way, so I best put two beds in the kitchen. :)

  8. I loved Jessica’s post, and it really got me thinking… your post adds another piece to this puzzle, I think. I’m trying to figure out how to turn Cooper’s “stranger danger” into a yes, and. And between your two posts, I’m re-framing my thought process entirely. Hmm… More to come on this!!

  9. What a wonderful way of looking at things, for both the dogs when training, and for ourselves as well.