It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

This is the short version of this post. Here is the longer version.

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or choke collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only for the purpose of “getting the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

Others, while well meaning, use a special sound or a “No!” to get their dogs to stop doing something. Not the worst thing in the world, but these people will try to argue you to the ground, insisting that the noise or word is “neutral.” They’ll say that it doesn’t carry any aversive effect, that it “just gets the dog’s attention.”

If only! This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately, the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

I have another version of this post in which I analyze the possibilities of the so-called Magical Attention Signal using behavior analysis. Feel free to check it out. Or read forward and get the story through some straightforward analogies.


Imagine that you and I don’t share a common language or culture. But a friend in common has dropped you off to stay at my house for an afternoon.

You are looking around the house. You come into the bedroom and start looking through my jewelry box. I look up and casually say, “Glumph.” In my language, that means, “Please don’t bother my stuff; why don’t you go look around in the next room.” But you don’t know that. It was just a nonsense sound to you, so you keep looking through the jewelry. “Glumph” perhaps got your attention for a moment, but nothing else happened. It was a neutral stimulus. Now here’s where it gets interesting. What happens next?

Scenario 1: The “Neutral” Attention Signal

So what if nothing else happens besides my saying, “Glumph” every so often? If the jewelry (or my mail, or my wallet) is interesting, “Glumph” will not get your attention. In fact, the more I say it (staying in a neutral tone), the more it becomes part of the background. You habituate to it, and it loses even the tiny bit of attention-getting power it may have had at the beginning through novelty.

Outcome: “Glumph” is a neutral stimulus and doesn’t work to get attention.

Scenario 2: The Raised Voice

This is one of the likelier scenarios. After my first statement of “Glumph,” I say it again, but this time I raise my voice. I really need to interrupt you from going through my things! This time you are startled and you stop. Oops, the host is mad!

“Glumph” is now more effective. But how is it operating? It is interrupting you either because it is intrinsically startling, or because you know that yelling humans are more likely to harm you.

Outcome: “Glumph” is an interrupter operating through fear or threats.

Scenario 3: Taking Action

This is the most common scenario in dog training. What do I do after I say “Glumph,” conversationally to you, and you don’t stop what you are doing? I yell “Glumph,” I jump up, and physically stop you from going through my jewelry. I might do this a number of ways. Even though I’m upset, I might take you very gently away from my jewelry. Or I could do something less gentle. I could grab your hands or whack them. I could close the lid on your fingers. I could yell in your face. I could push you away. I could hit you.

So what does “Glumph” mean now? You will likely pay attention the next time I say or yell it. Because it means at the very least (the gentle scenario) you are going to lose access to the thing you are enjoying. But most likely you will have learned that my yelling “Glumph!” is a precursor to something unpleasant happening to you.

“Glumph” has become a punishment marker, and can operate as a threat.

A neutral stimulus by itself has no power, and the dog will habituate to it. If a word or noise works reliably to stop behaviors, it is not a neutral stimulus. It doesn’t just “get the dog’s attention” in a neutral way. It works because it is either intrinsically unpleasant or predicts unpleasantness.

Outcome: “Glumph” scares the dog or predicts something painful, scary, or otherwise unpleasant.

But Wait: There are Positive Interrupters!

Yes, thank goodness. There is a positive reinforcement based method for getting your dog to stop doing stuff. You can condition a positive interrupter.

Here’s a video by Emily Larlham that shows how to train a positive interrupter. Here’s a post about how I conditioned yelling at my dogs to be a positive thing for them—and it ended up having a similar effect.

But the thing is, the people who have conditioned a positive interrupter will tell you so. They can tell you the systematic process they went through to create it. They created it before they ever used it, not in the middle of difficult situations. They will emphatically not claim that their cue is a “neutral, attention-getting stimulus.” They know better. They implemented positive reinforcement.

No Magical Attention Signal

If someone says that Tool or Method A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also, ask them what happens if the first implementation of the tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

Many promoters of aversive methods in dog training don’t want to say that they hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.
Attention in the backyard, achieved with positive reinforcement

Copyright 2017, 2018 Eileen Anderson

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8 thoughts on “It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

  1. Hi, Eileen

    I love this post, but have a question about using a Positive Interrupter when a dog is mouthing/nipping you. This is one of the most challenging thing that many of my clients with young dogs or puppies deal with. I am trying to find the best way to get the dog to stop biting/let go of the person-so that they can then redirect the dog to a more another activity-or more appropriate chew item. But if the dog is already focused on the person whom he/she is biting, will a PI work to get them to momentarily stop the behavior?

    I will look forward to hearing from you, whenever you have the time!

    1. That’s a great question, and the short answer is I don’t know. But I agree with what you imply: a positive interrupter works best to reorient the dog to the person if they are paying attention to something else.

      I don’t generally worry about PIs becoming higher order conditioned reinforcers, since in an R+ environment, a dog has a lot easier ways to earn attention or treats. They don’t have to “be bad, then good.” But I think it would be another reason with this particular behavior that a PI is not ideal. The dog is already getting attention, then the PI can get them more.

      Keeping in mind that I am not a professional, my plans would include redirecting the dog to a toy, teaching a solid to go mat cue (that’s what I use when my dogs get worked up), and negative punishment (with or without a marker) where the fun stops instantly in some way or other when the dog nips.

      Thank you for this very good point.

      1. Thanks for your response to my question, Eileen:-) I do definitely make the same suggestions to clients that you listed above, to deal with their dogs’ mouthing. I also love “Find It” as a way to redirect a dog who has that “I want to use you as a chew toy” look in his/her eye-before they get to the human. I also recommend they do set ups on leash-or behind a baby gate-where they can approach & retreat (the negative punishment you mentioned), based on the dog’s behavior. But my real conundrum is what to suggest clients do when their dog is already attached to them (biting flesh or clothing), to get the dog to let go. I have been suggesting that they do something to startle-but not scare-the dog (a fine line, I know-hence my question) to get him/her to let go. Then they can redirect with a toy, bone, or training games. But if something does work to get the pup’s attention to get him/her to let go, what often seems to happen is that the dogs eventually habituates to the noise/action-& then it doesn’t work to distract them enough to let go. In that scenario, do you think it will reinforce the biting behavior to actually stick a handful of treats under the dog’s nose to get him/her to let go-as we do with a Drop It trade? Then immediately redirect the dog in the ways I mentioned above.

        1. That is a conundrum, all right! What it makes me think of, and I may be off the mark here, is the way I learned to teach a dog to quit tugging, i.e. drop a toy in a tug game. I go very still and press my hands with the toy close to my body and cover as much as I can. I make it inconvenient for them to hang on without creating more excitement through motion. However–that’s with a toy. I could see it working with some parts of clothing or even body parts, but not all. Does cessation of motion ever work in these situations? I imagine it could be difficult if the pup is actually chomping one’s hand!

          1. Taking away attention & stopping all motion can sometimes work to stop a puppy biting a person/their clothing. But my clients often lament that the puppy won’t take any other item offered-so then the problem is how to disengage with him/her, when the puppy won’t stop biting them.
            Clearly, better management in the future-so they don’t get into this scenario so often-& set ups where they can easily take attention away are in order! But if the pup is hanging on, I guess a Find It to get them some space quickly, is the best option…?

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