By Jeff Stallings, CPDT-KA
The word “no” and its variations have an incredibly useful place in the English language, for humans anyway.
Would you like cream in your coffee? No, thanks.
Can I interest you in a serving of liver pie? No, but my dog would love some.
Would you mind giving up your first-class aisle seat for this middle seat in coach? No!
The answer to each of the above questions, in normal person-to-person communication, can be the end of the discussion. “No” means no, and nothing else need be communicated.
But with dogs, who think in pictures and, as with all non-human beings, are non-verbal by nature, “no” is not enough. Not only that, I believe you can remove the word “no” from your human-to-dog communication and you’ll both be better off.
But what, you might ask, am I supposed to say to my dog when he jumps on the couch, eyes my sandwich on the coffee table, or digs in my yard? Building a “positive interrupter” is a way of getting your dog’s attention so that you can redirect him to an activity that you’d rather he be doing, such coming over to you, sitting, laying down, staying, or any other command you’ve trained.
Building a Positive Interrupter
Before using a positive interrupter, you must give a specific sound or word meaning by, over the course of five or six sessions, pairing it with a high-value “primary reinforcer”, most likely food. And not just any food, something your dog can’t resist, such as poached chicken or (a plug here for my favorite training treats) Wellness Wellbites.
If you’ve done clicker training before, “charging up the clicker” is identical to charging up your positive interrupter. However, the two sounds are used in completely different ways: The clicker is to mark (*click*) a behavior you want your dog to perform on cue in the future. In contrast, your positive interrupter is used to get your dog to turn his focus to you rather than continuing a behavior you don’t want him doing.
Commonly used sounds for positive interrupters are that kissy face sound, clucking with your tongue on the roof of your mouth, words such as “treat”, “cookie” or “woohoo”, or even a snap of your fingers. I prefer to use non-verbal sounds and am partial to the roof-of-mouth tongue cluck, so when building a positive interrupter for my dog Otis, this is what I used.
After choosing your interrupter sound, in a low-distraction location line up 15 or so small pieces of your dog’s favorite food, make your sound, and immediately feed him a treat. Repeat until all the treats are gone, end of session. Make this all fun and games for your dog, and then immediately engage him in a favorite activity. Repeat this process three or more times over the next few days.
Proofing the Positive Interrupter
Before using the positive interrupter sound to stop an unwanted behavior, you will “proof” the cue. “Proofing,” in dog training parlance, means practicing a behavior in different environments and situations until your dog generalizes the desired behavior and can do it anytime, anywhere.
To do this, and after completing the above exercises, start with your dog in a low-distraction familiar place, such as your living room. Say or make your interrupter sound and the instant your dog turns around and looks at you, feed him a treat by tossing it near your feet (so he moves towards you), and then have him perform a few other commands (because remember, when you use your positive interrupter to stop an unwanted behavior, you will substitute it with an acceptable one.)
Practice this five times in a row, and then end it with a fun play session. Continue to practice in brief training sessions indoors and reward your dog every time he responds to the interrupter cue.
Practice with Higher Distractions
When your dog becomes really good at this behavior indoors (i.e. responds 90% of the time), it’s time to practice the behavior outdoors with more distractions. Leash your dog and practice saying the interrupter cue, marking and rewarding this behavior for 1-2 minutes. Practice daily for 1-2 minutes with your dog on leash.
Keeping your dog on leash during the first steps of the learning process prevents your dog from wandering off and increases your chances of success. Once your dog will respond quickly to your interrupter cue, take your dog’s leash off and practice saying your interrupter cue and generously reward good behavior.
When indoors, most dogs will stop and look at you once they hear the interrupter cue, so reward this behavior generously. If your dog is in another room or outdoors, say the interrupter cue and toss the reward next to your feet. This will stop your dog’s unwanted behavior and teach him to come to you for the treat and for further guidance
When to Use an Interrupter Cue
Once your dog consistently responds to an interrupter cue, it’s time to use this valuable cue when your dog is barking, jumping on the counter, playing roughly or digging. Remember, an interrupter cue will only stop unwanted behavior, so always follow the interruption with an acceptable positive task (come, sit, down, stay, or any party tricks you’ve taught him.)