Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

Ever since she arrived at my home at the age of 10 weeks, Clara has been a challenge.

One of her more problematic behaviors was her mugging of my face whenever it got within range. It happened all the time. How many times a day do you lean over your puppy, or lean over in her presence to pick up something off the floor? Most often something that she either dropped or shouldn’t have. Answer: a lot. Except not me, anymore, because she shaped me not to. If a strong, speedy puppy came barreling at your head every time you bent over, you might modify your behavior, too. So I do this embarrassing dance whenever I need to pick something up: distracting her, sneaking past, or trying to move REALLY FAST (which of course makes her all the more excited when she does catch me).

Young Clara mugging my face
Young Clara mugging my face

I took a stab at modifying her behavior early on, but I didn’t pick a viable method. What I did was treat it rather like a combination of a desensitization exercise and proofing a stay. I would put her in a sit stay and move over her very gradually, treating each movement. Slight lean, treat. Slight knee bend, treat. I did lots of sessions of this. Way too many for the good I got out of it. And while it may have helped somewhat with her being comfortable with those movements or the proximity of my face, it didn’t even begin to address the problem. I still had a small, then medium sized (then large, I admit it) puppy coming for me at the speed of light when I bent over. Because she wasn’t already in a stay to begin with. Duh.

Also sometime during her puppyhood I had another not so bright idea. I thought, Premack! Premack’s Principle states that more probable behaviors (bumping my face) can reinforce less probable behaviors (performing a sit stay when my face is close by). If she so strongly wants to lick and nuzzle and bump my face, wouldn’t that the ultimate reward for doing what I want first?

Does anyone see why this might not work, even if I could keep her from hurting me?

It was such a newbie error. I had never had a dog who got aroused this easily before. When your dog is excited, it is so easy to assume that she is happy. But the face licking is much more likely to be a stress and appeasement behavior.  I checked with my teacher, who knows Clara well and observed her. She said Clara did not look comfortable to her when doing the face seeking stuff. And that fits with the Clara I know, when I just stop to consider. She has a huge palette of appeasement behaviors and drops into those patterns at the drop of a hat.

So my idea was like saying to someone, “OK I see you bite your nails when you are nervous. Your reward after filling out this difficult form correctly is the opportunity to bite your nails.” OK, it might be just the thing. But a stress behavior like that has specific triggers, and is not always rewarding if those triggers aren’t there. After the form filling is done, the person may have no desire at all to bite their nails. In that case the chance to perform that behavior would not be reinforcing.

And that’s the reaction I got when I tried it with Clara. I got a good stay out of her, then knelt down and invited her to come lick my face. And got a big, fat “Huh?”

So the Premack experiment was short-lived. I should mention also that inviting a dog to come mug your face is, in many situations, not a good idea.  Lots of dogs are bothered by proximity of faces, and lots of bite incidents happen to people who thought their dog was fine with that kind of thing. And in any case, even if had worked it would have had the same problem as my desensitization approach. It didn’t address the problem directly because she was not already in a stay when my face approached.

So I quit and was basically living with it while I worked on things for which I got a better return on my time. One day I mentioned it to my teacher again while she was here at the house to work with Clara. I mentioned my gradual “stay” approach. She said she wouldn’t do it like that, instead, why not make bending over a cue to go to her crate? And in four repetitions of “new cue/old cue” little Clara was running to her crate when Lisa bent over.

In behavior analysis, this is called “Differential Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behavior,” or DRI. It’s a widely used technique to get an animal (including a person) to stop doing something by making an incompatible behavior pay off really, really well. Clara cannot go straight to her crate and stay there and simultaneously leap up and mug a face.

Yargh, why didn’t I think of that? I said some rude things out of frustration if I recall.

But even then it didn’t make it to the top of my priority list. I played with it a couple if times, considering making bending over be a cue for crate or go to mat, but never got off the ground.

Clara still mugging my face

But I train Sue Ailsby’s Training Levels and one day there it was. Level 2 Down, Step 5. Teaching default cues. Is there a situation in which you would always like the dog automatically to lie down? Sue describes teaching a default down and stay when putting food dishes down, when meeting children or old people, or even when talking on the telephone.

Where do you need Level 2 Down? And the answer was obvious. Every time I lean over. I won’t always have a crate for her to go into, or a mat for her to get on. But by golly she can virtually always lie down. This finally gave me the incentive to do something about the behavior. So I used the New Cue/Old Cue method, as Lisa had done with the crate, and had the basic behavior in four iterations. (I think it went so quickly because it is much faster for a dog to go from a verbal to a body cue than the other way around.) After that it was just reminding her and expanding it into more difficult situations.

There are a few real life ramifications of my body cue for Clara’s down, and for once I may have thought them through. Mostly that if leaning over is a cue for down, I need to keep that in mind when practicing other behaviors, especially duration behaviors. If I have put her in a sit/stay and then lean over her, I have given her two conflicting cues. I can train her which one takes priority, but for now I’ll probably avoid that situation, while I’m strengthening the default down. If I were planning competition obedience with her or some other precise work where the difference between the two behaviors was crucial, I would need to choose another solution or else pay some keen attention to the discrimination/priority of the cues. But basically right now it is a very high priority to get her out of my face.

Anybody else have unusual cues for default behaviors? I’d love to hear about them.

Upcoming topics:

Thanks for reading!

Visit eileenanddogs on YouTube

Copyright Eileen Anderson 2013

25 thoughts on “Get Out of My Face! Teaching an Incompatible Behavior

  1. His videos are extraordinarily clear and understandable even for people like me who do not speak English. Thanks for this and all other.

  2. I really enjoyed this post and video. Loved the way you reasoned this all out and came up with a solution. I have been trying to train an incompatible behavior when putting on Esme’s harness and leash prior to a walk. She really can’t manage a sit (we are in NL2, she was adopted as a young adult in May12) under the circumstances, way way too exciting and she really doesn’t like her harness or Gentle Leader much at all (reserving her flat collar as we work through LLW in NL2). I need to think about this more and see if the default Down might be the ticket. Anyway, great stuff, Eileen, and thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks, Carolyn. Your harness and leash situation sounds like a challenge, too. Every time I think I’ve gotten Clara to control herself with that, she tends to surprise me. She really is working at controlling herself, but she can lose it in a second and go, POP! Usually into my face. In a way I feel like she has a lot more control than my other dogs. It just doesn’t appear that way since she needs so much more!Good luck with Esme.

  3. Hi Eileen – thank you for a great post and video – so kind of you to take so much time to put these together and to share them.

    Thanks so much!


  4. I think another good point of this blog is “if at first you don’t suceed, try again”. I’ve learned that with my dog too. Sometimes you try a supposedly fool proof method that just doesn’t work for your dog. I used to think I must be doing it wrong, now I realize maybe it just isn’t right in that situation for my dog. I keep looking for a better solution. This is the first time I’ve read this blog and I’ve really enjoyed it. You’re very generous with your time and training information.

    1. Mary, that is a really good point, maybe the most important at all. Things are rarely impossible. But sometimes it’s very easy to find ways that don’t work. Thanks so much for your kind words as well.

    1. Wow! Thanks for featuring my video and blog! I’ve been enjoying your blog for a couple of years, now. I think I found you because I also went to the ORCA conference in 2009 and I saw your notes.

  5. Just commented on Facebook how much I like your article and the journey you describe. I shared this on Pinterest. I hope you don’t mind, if you do I’ll remove it.

  6. Fast forward two years: this post in conjunction with The Perils of Premature Premack prompted me to try a default down with our girl this morning – she was showing signs of stress when I used a head turn to ask her to stop mugging me when I put on my shoes (she’s very sensitive). Ummm… Success in four tries, and she couldn’t be happier – thanks Eileen!!

  7. This has given me some great ideas about a playful adult Malinois that I’m working with. He had been very badly ring-trained and is very excited by arms and faces, which he mugs (with teeth) – I want to desensitise him to those quick movements and times when an arm or face is in proximity. He’s made good progress with so much, except that – and this has really given me some great ideas.

Comments are closed.

Copyright 2021 Eileen Anderson All Rights Reserved By accessing this site you agree to the Terms of Service.
Terms of Service: You may view and link to this content. You may share it by posting the URL. Scraping and/or copying and pasting content from this site on other sites or publications without written permission is forbidden.
%d bloggers like this: