By Lisa Benshoff, CPDT-KA, Talbot Ttouch llc, Easton
Even those who are completely on-board with adopting positive methods of training and handling their dog will ask, “But what am I supposed to do when I want him to stop doing something?” This usually comes up right after I’ve explained why I don’t like to say "No" or misuse the dog’s name to handle this situation.
I’m talking about behaviors that are fine in moderation but can become excessive—let’s take barking at noises or people outside the house. It could also apply to barking at the fence, sniffing in the grass on a walk, licking your hand or face, or playing hard, before things get too rough. This is not about behaviors you never want to see. (That’s where management and training a better behavior work very well.) It’s how to tell your dog Okay, that’s enough.
The positive interrupt can also head off an unwanted or risky behavior right before it happens, like when your dog is staring at another dog or moving towards a roadkill.
What’s Wrong with No?
Scolding appears to work. But it may only startle her for a moment or two. She may go right back to it or start up again at the next opportunity. Hearing "No!" on a regular basis often leads to habituation: that is, the tendency to ignore it unless it’s followed by aversive consequences. (Note: In psychology, aversives are unpleasant stimuli that induce changes in behavior through punishment; by applying an aversive immediately following a behavior, the likelihood of the behavior occurring in the future is reduced.) If we choose not to go down that road—as has thankfully become more common—we tend to get louder, frustrated, and repeat ourselves ... not good for the relationship.
Consider that the word "No!" (without punishment) actually has no magic power; it’s the intimidating or threatening way it sounds. See how your dog responds when you say "Rutabaga" exactly the same way. Don’t even get me started on how silly and useless it is to command "No bark. No jump," and the like.
What’s more, sounding angry can cause a sensitive dog to fear you, not exactly what you want, along with other unintended fallout. What’s worse than "No!," for any dog, is hearing their name in an angry or threatening tone. We want them to look at us happily whenever they hear that name, not to think “Uh-oh” and run for cover or roll over in appeasement.
There’s a Better Way—As Usual!
The positive interrupt is a sound that makes your dog instantly turn and look at you, like a special whistle or the international 'kissy' sound. I have two attention sounds: the 'kissy' one and "Thank you." ('Excuse me' would serve equally well.) When the UPS truck comes down the driveway, my Doodle Scout is right at the window in the dining room, barking furiously to let us know there’s an intruder, even though it’s usually a delivery for her. The 'kissy' sound is just not loud enough. But another reason I like to say "Thank you" is that it comes out sounding cheerful and nearly always gets her attention. Besides, thanking her for doing a good job may prevent her from making up other jobs that are less appreciated.
So I go to the cookie jar in the kitchen, calling out "Thank you!" What happens next is that she runs to the kitchen for her treat. After eating it, for as long as she chooses to stay with me, she gets another "Thank you" and another treat. She may decide to run back to the window to resume her important announcement, but it’s just one time and the barking is much less intense. And she will come away again from the window when she hears the magic words.
The bonus of the positive interrupt is that it usually changes her focus and mood. And best of all, it stops the barking without yelling at her, which can sound to a dog like you’re joining in the bark-fest. And I don’t get annoyed with her.
Training the Positive Interrupt
First, experiment to see which sound has that head-turning effect on your dog when there are no distractions present. Then get a handful of yummy treats (not dry biscuits, please), and with your dog in front of you, make the sound and immediately follow up with a treat. Do not ask her to do anything, you are just making a strong positive association with the sound (or word). Sound/word = treat. Repeat 8-10 times in a row.
In the next session, sometime when your dog is not paying attention to you (but not watching a squirrel or someone approaching), make the sound or word and see if your dog turns her attention to you. If not, try a higher-value treat. Repeat a few times, with different not-very-exciting distractions. As always, don’t try this in the most challenging situation until you’ve done this intermediate step.
When minor distractions are working well, you’re probably ready to go for it in 'real life'. At first, go stand near your dog, armed with treats but not displaying them or trying to lure her to you. When she hears the positive interrupter, she will likely rush to you to collect a treat, then fly back to the window or door. Now move a few steps away from her and make the sound again. Repeat this sequence, as you move farther away.
As she keeps coming farther from the big distraction, it takes more and more effort to return to it. Gradually move into another room, where she cannot see whatever is provoking her. When she decides it’s more worthwhile to stay with you, praise and feed a few more treats and then switch to a favorite toy. Or ask for two or three cues she knows and loves to perform.
By now, she may have forgotten all about whatever she was watching in the first place. Or the show will be over. Win-win. Good manners work both ways.
Lisa serves on our Board and is instrumental in helping keep our animals happy!