Pandemic Dog Training Challenge 2: The Positive Interrupter, No More Yelling

April 13, 2020

Say goodbye to yelling at your dog. It’s time to interrupt barking (and more), all with a special sound.


With so many of us spending more time, in enclosed spaces with our dogs, than ever before, I thought it would be a great moment to teach you how to interrupt just about any behavior using a simple sound of your choice.

This works for dogs of all ages, from puppies to seniors. If you find yourself wanting to tell your dog, “No!” to stop a behavior then this blog is for you. While, saying “No!” makes sense to us, it does not hold meaning for our dogs. To interrupt a behavior effectively we need to use something with meaning attached, that’s what you’ll find here.

Whether it’s out of fear, anger, frustration or something else entirely, we can all find ourselves yelling at our dogs. It’s normal, we all do it from time to time, myself included. No judgement here. We humans have emotions too. That being said it can be incredibly stressful for dog and human alike especially if it’s happening a lot over the same situation.

Here’s the thing, sometimes yelling won’t provide our desired outcome: ending the behavior. Even if it does, it can run the risk of actually increasing the likelihood that your dog will perform the behavior in the future. Yelling often has us trading our long term goals for our short term goals. A positive interruptor serves them both at the same time. Before we get to that, let’s see what happens when we yell.

Let’s use an example to illustrate: Your dog is barking at a sound they hear outside.

  • Your dog hears the sound and starts barking.
    • The fact that your dog is barking indicates some kind of emotion regarding that sound, often a negative one. Fear, apprehension, aggression, frustration etc
  • In response to your dog barking, you start yelling.
    • Maybe the baby is down for the nap or you’re working or someone is on an important phone call. Perhaps there’s nothing pressing, you just don’t want to hear it.
  • Possible outcomes: Barking stops, barking pauses and restarts, barking escalates

Through this entire scenario an important process called classical conditioning is occuring. Your dog is learning that the sound = stressful yelling, and they feel even worse about that sound. Yelling may stop the behavior this time, but now there’s a bigger issue at hand.

Imagine a scale, on one side you have good experiences after hearing the sound and the other you have bad experiences after hearing the sound. At the start of this example, your dog already has some base level weight tipping the scale toward bad experiences. When you yell, even if the barking stops, you’re adding even more weight to the bad experiences side. The longer this scenario repeats itself, the more effort it’s going to take to get this scale leaning solidly toward the good experiences side. You’ll have to do a lot of work even to balance the scale before the sound feels good to your dog, and doesn’t lead to barking.

This scale is important even in situations where the behavior you are interrupting doesn’t have a negative emotion attached. Say your dog feels good or neutral about something, let’s call it a stimulus. Your dog experiences the stimulus and performs an unwanted behavior. If you yell to stop the behavior you can add a weight to the bad experience side of the scale. With enough repetitions you can tilt a good leaning scale to a bad leaning scale.

That might seem like a fine solution to something like chewing forbidden objects, counter-surfing or having accidents in the house, we want them to feel that these things are bad right? That will stop it for good? Not usually. Instead it results in the dog doing these things in secret to avoid us. We haven’t taught the dog what to do, all they know is that going to the bathroom on the floor means bad things for dogs. If we used a positive interrupter instead we still haven’t taught the puppy what to do, but we have saved ourselves the trouble of a dog who hides to potty in the house. Which do you think is easier to train?

What about yelling at a dog for something like trying to greet a person or pulling toward another dog because they want to say hello? Consistently responding in this way over time can change a dog from enjoying people or other dogs to disliking them or even feeling afraid or aggressive.

We don’t have to permit naughty behavior and yelling doesn’t often achieve our long term goals. So where does that leave us?

We’re going to create a positive interrupter.

Which is just a fancy term for a sound that means your dog is about to get a treat. So when your dog is barking, you can interrupt, while adding weight to the good sound experiences scale. Long term and short term goals served at the same time! Happy human, happy dog.

It’s a lot like what you did in Pandemic Dog Training Challenge 1A/1B except this sound is saved for the exclusive use of interrupting your dog. This will take some time to become powerful enough to interrupt your dog. Personally, the positive interrupter is something I follow up with a reward forever. Even if that means I need to party to a kitchen for food or hunt for a toy or make up a creative game on the spot. I want this battery fully charged, always.

If the text instructions are confusing to you, click the links to Challenge 1A and 1B above. In the beginning the process looks like teaching “nice” and when you add distance it starts to look like “yes”.

Exercise 1: Teaching a Positive Interrupter:

  1. Pick a Sound: Something unique and not otherwise used. Mine is a repeated tongue clicking noise, but I’ve seen kissy noises or a really specific whistle.
  2. Make the sound: Start with your dog in front of you, no specific behavior required
  3. Slight pause: Really important, sound, then food, not sound and food at the same time.
  4. Feed your dog: Use a treat that is high value, it will help make the sound more powerful.
  5. Repeat steps #2-4, 10 times. Perform exercise 3-5 times a day for 7 days to charge the sound. Try it in different areas of the house or even outside. Eye contact will likely appear naturally, if it does not, 3 days in, wait slightly and feed when it happens. Only use your sound in training exercises, it’s not quite ready for real life yet.

Now try adding elements of distance and distraction to your interrupter:

Spend at least a week doing this multiple times a day as before.

Use your new positive interrupter on things that don’t concern your dog during this time. You ultimately want your dog’s head to whip toward you, then for your dog to come toward you with eye contact in anticipation of the treat in a variety of contexts.

Here you can see an example of combined elements of distance and distraction. Fisher is shredding a toy, I interrupt and then use “get it” from Pandemic Training Challenge 1 to give myself time to grab the toy and put it away. This is for puppy owners who need ways of removing objects without turning it into a game of chase or conflict where you’re prying open your puppy’s mouth.

Exercise 2 Distance:

  1. Make the sound: Start with your dog in front of you, no specific behavior required
  2. Slight pause: Really important, sound, then food, not sound and food at the same time.
  3. Feed your dog: Use a treat that is high value, it will help make the sound more powerful.
  4. Say “Get it”
  5. Throw a treat 1 step away from you: In a way that makes your dog look away from you. 
  6. Wait for your dog to eat the treat: You want your dog to swallow before you restart the sequence. 
  7. Make your sound when your dog is turned away from you. 
  8. Repeat 3-7, 8 more times.

You can add additional distance, step by step either by throwing the reset treat farther or by taking one additional step away from your dog when he is eating the reset treat off the floor.

Exercise 3 Distraction:

    • Perform steps 2-4 under various circumstances starting easy and building your way up. Try when your dog is turned away from you, sniffing the ground, lying down, just around the corner out of view, on a walk, chewing on a toy or chew, eating dinner, playing etc
  • Exercise 4 Combination:
    • Combine factors of distance and distraction at low levels, building over time. If your dog’s success rate is falling below 60%, reevaluate the difficulty of your setup. 80% success or higher, consider raising the difficulty.

Using a Positive Interrupter With a Concerned Dog:

Feel confident that your dog can respond to your positive interrupter in a variety of experiences and locations? Now you can try it for things your dog is concerned about. If you’re needing to interrupt multiple times in succession, ask for some simple behaviors and/or help your dog settle into a calming activity away from whatever is triggering the behavior you are interrupting.

Here Fisher is not ready to respond to simple cues after being interrupted and it is time to help him settle into a new activity such as a frozen Kong, chewing something, play, or even a training session elsewhere in the house.

Here Fisher can follow be interrupted and follow simple cues. No further action is needed. 

Now here’s something you might see when using a positive interrupter consistently for a single issue. Fisher barks at something, then turns back to me with eye contact before I can even use his interrupter. He essentially interrupts himself. This is fine, and good. I did not need to use his interrupter in this instance, I could have simply fed him for his choice. Now, if this turns into a game where your dog barks just to look at you to get fed, outside of a triggered situation, that’s when you know you need to move with haste from using a positive interrupter to making a plan to teach an alternative behavior. To do that you need the steps that follow the video.

Notice also, that there is a second interruption here that was made preemptively. I noticed his body language may be indicating a repeat bark and I stopped it from happening. Using a positive interrupter when you notice the trigger, and before your dog can bark is actually a viable way to teach an alternative behavior. In this case that would be looking at you, or at a further distance, coming to you and making eye contact. Sometimes that might not be the ideal alternative for various reasons and you will need something else.

Take note of the situations where you are interrupting your dog the most. Make a list.

  • What happens right before the behavior?
  • Describe the behavior.
  • What happens after the behavior?
  • What would you like your dog to do instead?

These are your first steps toward making a plan to teach your dog what TO DO in order to reduce or eliminate your need to interrupt. You use this information to decide on an appropriate alternative behavior and what cues that alternative behavior. If that sounds confusing, it might be time to hire a professional to help you through the process.

Feel free to use this exercise for any behavior you would like to interrupt. Examples might include fixating on people or dogs on walks, soliciting attention from others, chewing something inappropriate, counter-surfing, sniffing something they shouldn’t etc. To reliably change the behaviors long term you would need to actually teach your dog what TO DO in these situations. This alternative behavior would eventually eliminate the need for interruption. For now though, you can interrupt these behaviors without complicating future training.



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