Positive Interruptor… or Just Good Spin?

SarahDog Training2 Comments

When I first learned about clicker-training, I must say that I had to question if clicker and positive trainers were agreeing with some of the same concepts as traditional and balanced trainers, just using more “politically correct” verbiage to make the point. Concepts like Direction vs. Discipline, No Reward Marker vs. Correction and Treat Placement vs. Luring left me wondering why we bothered to split so many terminological hairs.

Having a career in marketing and sales, of course I am one to recognize and relish in some impressive spin when I hear it. Before I’m quickly run out of the positive dog training community, please let me attempt to explain myself…

Having learned of – and unfortunately utilized – corrective methods in the past, it was going to take some solid proof before someone convinced me that you do not need positive punishment, or adding an aversive like a collar correction, to decrease undesirable behavior.

A classic example of this might be the dog that delightfully jumps up onto your guests when they arrive at your house (not to mention their four-year old daughter and great-granny, too). What’s the owner’s first instinct? Shout “NO!” and yank the dog off of the guests by the collar while chaos in the foyer continues to ensue.

What might a traditional trainer advise? One suggestion might be to knee the dog in the chest. If the dog is headed up towards your face, then he’ll never see it coming. I know this, because not too very long ago I was there. PLEASE (please, please) DO NOT DO THIS. First of all, it can injure the dog’s chest cavity, but even more so, you can also get injured because – hello – you are standing on one leg like a pelican with a puppy projectile leaping towards you. Ah yes, gravity at it’s finest.

Now, what might a positive trainer advise? Ignore the jumping of the dog. Calmly turning your back, crossing your arms and turning your head to avoid eye contact are all big “burns” where doggy dialect is concerned.

Remember, the goal is to replace undesirable behaviors with desirable ones. Where this process falls short many times is that once the dog stops jumping, the focus must turn to calm praise, praise, praise, treat, praise, praise and praise some more for having all four paws on the floor. (Plus one butt is even better!)

But let’s step back to the point of entry in the foyer. What if the dog was absolutely relentless and not only jumped on the front of your guest, but continued to jump on their back, too, once it was turned? Now what?

Basic Obedience 101 would tell us that yelling the dog’s name in anger is bad news. Once the name is poisoned, you may as well change the dog’s name. You may also have learned that “NO!” isn’t necessarily the best way to interrupt your dog’s behavior because it’s very commonly used in everyday conversation. In other words, it may not be unique enough of a sound to get your dog’s attention. And the word “OFF?”… Well, what does it mean to your dog if the off behavior has never been taught? One might compare it to saying something random, like “Banana,” and expecting perfect results.

But we can’t help it. Words just fly out of our mouths sometimes. And if only that were the worst of it. So what are we supposed to do? Just stand there and do nothing?

So, the next thing we might try is to interrupt the behavior with a unique and loud sound to startle the dog into distraction, right? This might be an alarm, an air horn, a shake can, a bang on the table, or other noise corrections of sort.

What??? That sounds scary, and it doesn’t sound very positive… And you’re right, it’s not. Scaring your dog for scary’s sake is not positive training. And although I can’t prove it, loud aversive noises might also contribute to fear of unavoidable sounds like thunder and fireworks over time. It certainly can’t help, anyway.

So one day, I was reading a puppy book when I came across the term “Positive Interruptor.” For example, when a puppy chews on chair leg, use a positive interruptor like a hand clap to capture his attention, then call him to you for a treat…

Now that’s some good spin if I’ve ever heard it. What are we positive trainers trying to get away with? Isn’t that the same as a scary noise correction?

No, it’s not… And here’s why. When we get our puppy or newly adopted dog, the first thing to realize is that they are going to do bad things. Instead of getting mad with the dog for doing dog-type things, let’s prep ourselves to realize that we’re going to have to deal with this. Step number one? Condition your dog to a positive interruptor sound.

Decide on which sound you will use to effectively and habitually interrupt your dog’s behavior when you need it. Is it a tongue click? A kissy noise or a hand clap? A finger snap or a whistle? Whatever you decide upon, the noise shouldn’t be inherently scary. I like whistling because the sound can carry over a long distance, and you always have your “whistlers” with you. The whistle can be modified to be quiet and short when the dog’s close-by, or loud, quick and continuous when farther away.

The goal is to condition a positive association with that interruptor noise. Therefore, when it must be used, the dog is distracted at the possibility of receiving a piece of hot dog from you, and not so freaked out by the noise itself that it has no choice but to stop everything and freeze.

To see how a positive interrupter is trained, check out this fantastic video by Dogmantics on YouTube:https:Positive Interruptor Clip

After you’ve taught the dog to willingly give attention, now give it a cue for a more desirable learned behavior, like off, sit, touch or go to mat, followed with a click or marker signal (like Yes! or Good!) and a treat.

What if your dog hasn’t learned a positive interruptor or any of the replacement behaviors at the door yet?… No worries. The best thing to do, especially in the case of the 4-year old and great-granny, is to manage your dog’s behavior by crating him, leashing him or placing him in another room so that he doesn’t have the opportunity to practice the jumping behavior. Then schedule some training and practice time with your dog on a regular basis with willing and physically able adult volunteers. Why risk injury, or maybe worse, a lawsuit?

Hallelujah, the world is beginning to make sense to me again. We can interrupt unwanted behavior, but through positive training methods. In some ways, I equate it to elementary school. We all knew what the bell at the end of recess meant. We learned subconsciously to stop all mischievous fun immediately and trudge back inside to our schoolwork.

However, if your school was like mine, we stopped at the water fountain first, visited the little girls or boys rooms and then sit down for a snack and book-time before any actual work started back up again. This ritual was a transition of sorts between what we wanted to do and what our teachers expected of us. For dorks like me, sometimes the schooling itself even became a little bit of fun. And as we grew older, we didn’t need these rituals anymore as a transition between play and work. (Okay, I still need them from time to time!) Your dog will soon learn the same, that paying attention and doing what you would prefer them to do pays off in a big way.

As for the other training concepts, of course, I’ve learned that there are real differences between them. The positive and clicker trainers that I know and have learned from are extremely smart, creative and clever. But they aren’t sneaky and certainly aren’t spin doctors. They just realize that a little treat in between the fun and the work can go a long, long way down the path to success.

Additional Resources

There’s Something Happening Here: Training Wars
One-Armed Positive Training is Easier
Functional Cues: Palm Targeting and “Here”

2 Comments on “Positive Interruptor… or Just Good Spin?”

  1. Hi there! This article could not be written much better!
    Reading through this article reminds me of my previous
    roommate! He always kept preaching about this.
    I’ll send this article to him. Fairly certain he’ll have a good read.
    I appreciate you for sharing!

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