“Excuse Me:” Using Positive Interrupters to Stop Problem Behaviors

By Nichole Myers-Youngquist, CPDT-KA, WHS Behavior & Training Instructor

Asher, who was recently adopted, heard his positive interrupter. Photo by Martha Russell. 

Interruptions are a part of everyday human life. We get interrupted by coworkers, spouses, and our children. You’ll lose friends by interrupting them during a conversation. That’s considered rude, antisocial human behavior according to our societal norms. Polite interruption, however, in dog training could prevent your puppy from chewing up your slippers or even save their life.

Chewing, scent marking, barking, digging, mounting, sniffing are natural for dogs but, in certain situations, we find them annoying. In some instances they could also be harmful. As an example, if a dog chews on an electrical cord, they could get a small shock or, worse, electrocuted. While supervision of our dogs and management of the environment are two ways to prevent damage, accidents and injury, training ranks at the top. Using the rude, antisocial human behavior of interruption in a positive manner we can teach our dogs to instantly look at us and stop any risky behavior. Let’s talk about positive interrupters.

What is a positive interrupter?

Asher bounds to Nichole after hearing a kissy noise. Photo by Martha Russell.

If you’ve taken any classes from me, you know I strongly suggest not using the word “no” when training your dog. “No” isn’t an action word; it doesn’t tell your dog what to do. What information is gained by using “no?” Nothing. This is why I suggest using a positive interrupter. 

A positive interrupter is a noise or word that stops your dog from doing a specific behavior and instantly redirects their attention towards you. Don’t you like it when your dog acknowledges your existence?  

Your positive interrupter can be a kissy noise, the click of your tongue, a special whistle, a high pitched verbal “boop,” or the squeak of a toy. It can be a word(s) like “thank you,” “excuse me,” “snack,” or “cookie.” Some of the more creative interrupters I’ve heard are  “blowing a raspberry” or doing a “bee bee bee” in the highest pitched voice ever! Whatever you choose, make it sound positive and exciting. High-pitched tones are best.

Positive Interrupter vs. a No Reward Marker

Many dog training programs teach no reward markers. No reward markers (NRMs) are a verbal signal that lets the dog know that the behavior offered is not correct. “Eh-eh,” “Oops,” or “Uh-huh” are some of the most common NRMs. If you’ve learned to use NRMs, nothing wrong with that. But, remember, neutrality is important when choosing to use a NRM. NRMs are not intended as a punisher but some dogs may view them as such. Think of it this way, you’re in school and the teacher rings a bell for each correct answer given and a buzzer for the wrong answers. How would you feel about the buzzer? Is it just indicating that you gave the wrong answer or is it increasing your stress level? You would probably lose confidence in your decisions and stop answering the questions. Your dog could feel the same way about “Eh-eh.”

What’s more important than having our dogs look at us happily? Politeness works best.

Teaching a Positive Interrupter

First, you’ll need to figure out what noise/word works best to get your dog’s attention. Then, you’ll need a lot of super-yummy treats. With your dog in front of you, make your sound/word. Make your noise/word and give them a treat. Do not ask for any specific behaviors like sitting. We are building the association of noise/word = yummy treats. Repeat 10 times.

During your next training session, when your dog is paying attention to a toy or another person, make your noise/word. If your dog turns their attention to you, give them a jackpot of treats. Repeat a few more times with not very distracting items. Once your dog can successfully look or move away from minor distractions, it’s time for the intermediate level.

In the intermediate level, keep in mind that distance and the value of the treats are key. If you are unable to gain your dog’s attention, move farther away from the distraction or use a higher value treat. Use real life distractions like the window where the neighbors walk past with their dogs, your backyard where squirrels run free, or your front porch with a view of the garbage truck. Stand close to your dog at first, then move gradually away. Ideally, your dog rushes to you when they hear the positive interrupter. Once you’ve mastered this level you’re ready to do it on the road. Remember to keep it fun and safe.

Asher relaxes after all of his successful training. Photo by Martha Russell.

Contact our behavior and training department to get additional advice and schedule private lessons. 

Thank you for reading.  As always, practice patience.