My wife was happily chopping vegetables in the kitchen when a stray bit of carrot made a desperate break for freedom and leapt onto the floor. Almost immediately, two black noses, one frosted with grey, appeared at either side of our center kitchen island. With the right angle, it was a Discovery Channel moment with two predators closing in on their hapless prey. “Leave it!”, called my wife without looking up or breaking her chopping rhythm. Both dogs instantly froze and looked up at her. She smiled and got them both a cookie for doing as she asked.
There were a lot of ways my wife could have reacted to that incident. A loud, stern “No!” would have startled our two dogs into stopping their approach. She could have turned to one or the other and directed them out of the kitchen. But instead, she used a behaviour that we had taught to both of our dogs at the age of only 2 months. “Leave it” is a cue to stop doing what you are about to do and look for more direction from your human. Not only did that cue prevent our dogs from stealing food from the floor, it also stopped them from any confrontation with each other over the piece of carrot. “Leave it!” meant leave everything to both of our dogs at the same time.
Our dogs were interrupted. They had heard the carrot hit the floor and were coming to investigate. There might even have been competition between the dogs. But in one swift and non-confrontational stroke, my wife had just used a cue to interrupt some unwanted behaviour. And sometimes that’s really all it takes to prevent unwanted behaviour, just interrupt what’s going on and give the dog something better to do.
When she was quite young, my dog Tiramisu was very stimulated by fast moving dogs. This might not have been that much of a problem for me but we were attending agility classes each week. As you might guess, the sights and sounds of the other dogs running and jumping and barking was incredibly arousing for Tira. She would lunge at the end of her leash and bark and squeal in her excitement. Of course, the first instinct for me as a handler was to find a way to stop the behaviour. It was disrupting to the class and frankly, it was annoying.
Another behaviour we always train our dogs when they are quite young is “Look” which means look me directly in the eyes and hold my gaze until I say “ok.” Initially we trained it to make our dogs comfortable with humans looking them in the eye (not a natural behaviour for dogs) but it turned out to be a perfect tool for dealing with Tira’s rowdy agility class antics. Because we had trained the cue early and had reinforced it literally hundreds of times, when I said “Look!” to Tira at class one night, she instantly turned away from the running dogs and looked right at me.
I had successfully re-directed Tira from an unwanted behaviour to a more acceptable one. Of course at first I could only ask for a short look and she would go back to her barking and lunging at the other dogs. So I just asked her again for a “Look” and she complied once again. I used this repeating of the “Look” command to get her into the habit of turning to me instead of spending her time barking and squealing. Each time she responded to my cue by looking at me, I rewarded her with a small food treat. In a few short weeks this re-direction turned into Tira preferring to “Look” at me instead of the dogs. By interrupting and re-directing Tira’s behaviour, I changed what her default behaviour became at class. And I never had to say “NO!” or yank on her leash.
Sometimes a dog’s behaviour can be instinctive. Alert barking is a great example. We have bred dogs to warn us when strangers are around. It’s a useful thing to have if you are out walking alone at night or if you live in a secluded neighborhood. The problem can sometimes be that our dogs don’t always know when enough is enough. When our friends arrive for a dinner party, a few barks is great to let us know that company is here but it’s an instinctive behaviour. Our dogs might not know that it’s time to stop barking.
These instinctive behaviours come from a different part of the brain than trained behaviours do. They originate in the amygdala, the center of the brain responsible for emotional learning and long term memory consolidation. More importantly, impulses travel more quickly through the nervous system from the amygdala than impulses the come from the higher order parts of the brain where learned behaviour comes from. Some scientists call the amygdala the “lizard” brain since it is a part of the brain shared with most species on the planet including mammals, fish and lizards.
When animals engage in behaviours that are tied to their emotions or deep instinctive behaviours, they are operating from the amygdala, their “lizard” brain. It’s quite possible that you can’t just give your dog a cue like “leave it” when they are in that state of arousal. That’s when we need to use some kind of physical interruption.
Physical interruptions can be as simple as stepping in front of your dog to block their vision. You could also place a hand on your dog’s back. Many times the physical contact is enough to distract them. Food is one of the best physical interruptions because it goes to the most primal parts of the dog’s brain. The smell of food will almost always give you a dog’s attention. Holding a food treat up to a dog’s nose can enable you to lead them away from whatever is causing them to do an unwanted behaviour.
“Not that” is not the same as “No”
The importance of interrupting unwanted behaviours, rather than using a more traditional “correction” is that you are not creating a confrontation with your dog. Traditional approaches to unwanted behaviour were to find a way to stop it. Interruptions, on the other hand, are a temporary measure until you can get the dog to do a more acceptable behaviour. In other words, you aren’t saying “NO!” to your dog. You are really saying “not that” so that you can get to a place where you can show them what the preferred behaviour would be.
It may seem like a small distinction but I believe it is an important one. Dogs always behave they way they do for a reason. We might not understand why they need to bark but rest assured that they do. When we tell them “NO!”, we are telling them they are wrong and that can be frustrating. To make matters worse, we’re not giving them any alternatives.
Interrupting a behaviour is a different process. It acknowledges that the dog has a reason for what they are doing, even if we don’t understand it. By interrupting, we are teaching our dog that there are alternatives and we help them to give us behaviours that we like in place of the ones we don’t like. Whether you use re-direction or simply move them way from what’s causing the unwanted behaviour, it’s the first step in making them successful at a behaviour we want them to be doing.
Our dogs do have minds of their own. And we are quite content to let them amuse themselves in their own ways. That is, until they start doing things we don’t like – digging, barking, scratching, whining, etc. Interruptions provide a way for us to change their behaviour without stressing them out. A loud “HEY!” is enough of an audio interrupter to get our dog’s attention long enough to give them another cue for a different behaviour. But first we have to get their attention.
We have trained many interruption cues in our house. “Not for you” is a cue I have trained Tira while I am eating. It is similar to “leave it” but it just indicates that no amount of begging will work so doing something else would be a good idea. We also frequently use “Thank you” as more gentle form of “leave it” meaning that’s enough of that for now. It’s very useful when the dogs are barking.
Our dogs don’t behave badly to annoy us. Yes, their behaviour is sometimes annoying but I don’t believe that is their intent. Rather than getting angry over unwanted behaviour and trying to stop it, we have made a practice of just interrupting unwanted behaviour and either re-directing our dogs or moving them on to other things. It has made life a lot easier for us and our dogs seem to appreciate it too.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs.
The first Canine Nation ebooks are now available –
“Dogs: As They Are” & “Teaching Dogs: Effective Learning”
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