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How to Positively Interrupt a Behavior

09 May 2018 5:35 AM | Louise Stapleton-Frappell (Administrator)

Positive interrupters or 'alert sounds' such as a kissy noise can be used to attract a dog's attention or to interrupt an unwanted behavior.  The dog can then be asked to carry out a more desirable behavior and appropriately marked and reinforced for doing so.

In my presentation, Using Positive Interrupters to Help Increase Desirable Behaviours, at the PPG Behavior and Training Workshop, in Kanab, Utah, April 2018, I also talked about the importance of making possible future ‘negatives’ positive. If you are in any doubt as to the future of the individual and the way in which he/she might be spoken to, which could be the case with many dogs in a rescue or shelter centre, then I advise respondently conditioning words such as 'Oi!', 'Hey!', 'Ey!', 'No!', 'Tsch!', 'Ah ah!' and even phrases such as 'Naughty girl' and 'Naughty boy'.

Respondent conditioning takes place when an unconditioned stimulus that elicits an unconditioned response is repeatedly paired with a neutral stimulus. As a result of conditioning, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus that reliably elicits a conditioned response. Each single pairing is considered a trial. With respondent conditioning the presentation of the two stimuli, neutral and unconditioned, are presented regardless of the behavior the individual is exhibiting. The behavior elicited is a reflex response (Change 2008 p 64).

By repeatedly pairing the words 'Oi', 'No' etc with something the dog loves, for example a piece of yummy food, these words will come to elicit a positive conditioned emotional response rather than a negative one.  During the conditioning process, the chosen word should initially be spoken at low volume with a happy tone of voice and a smile on the trainer's face. The tone of voice is incrementally lowered in such a way that it continues to elicit a positive CER. The tone of voice is then highered again (returning to a happy 'sing-song' pitch) and the volume is systematically increased. The lowered tone and increased volume can then be combined, initially with a smile and very soft look on the trainer's face and subsequentially with a more neutral look and finally, a harder mouth and 'sterner' features. The trainer should have a good knowledge of canine communication, ensuring that the individual remains happy, calm and relaxed throughout the process.  Remember, we are endeavouring to condition a positive emotional response so it is paramount that no fear, anxiety or stress are elicited.

In an ideal world, I would like to think that no dog ever had to hear these words and that instead, if carrying out a problematic behavior (as perceived by the human) the dog would simply be asked to carry out a more desirable one, for which he/she would then be reinforced, but unfortunately, we do not presently live in this 'ideal' world. By putting respondent conditioning to good use, as described above, if, at any time in the dog's future, someone does use the words you have conditioned, he/she will be much more likely to respond by happily focusing on said person. At the very least, we should have ensured a neutral response.

We can also put operant conditioning to good use and give these words meaning, for example 'Hey' could be taught to mean 'focus on human'; 'Tsch' could be taught to mean 'come towards human'; 'No' might be taught to mean 'sit'...  The words could all become evocative stimuli for specific chosen behaviors.

If you would like to learn more about positive interrupters and how to condition them, you can do so by registering for 32.5 Hours of Audio Recordings from the Pet Professional Guild 2018 Workshop held at Best Friends or by signing up for the individual presentation, 'How to Use Positive Interrupters to Increase Desirable Behaviors, which will soon be available through DogNostics.

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