Teaching Your Dog to Self-Interrupt

What are the neighbors doing?

Here is something I taught with positive reinforcement that enhances Clara’s life and mine. I’ve taught her to respond positively to being interrupted, and even to interrupt herself. This trained behavior helps us get along smoothly from day to day, and also helps keep her safe in the world.

Self-interruption is related to a whole batch of desirable dog behaviors. I mean desirable to us humans, but they are beneficial to the dogs, too. People refer variously to reorientation, offered attention, checking in, and more. Even recall is related. By whatever name, these are safety behaviors. When you can get your dog’s attention easily, and when they offer attention on their own, you can get them out of many emergencies without a fuss.

What Does Self-Interruption Look Like?

Over the years, I have taught Clara to interrupt her own behavior when there is something intense going on in the environment. She stops and checks in with me. If she’s next to me already, she turns and looks at me. If she’s across the yard or in another part of the house, she runs to me. This ability to turn away from something that’s bothering her has the effect of lowering her arousal. Self-interruption also means it’s easy to get her out of sticky situations. She does most of the work herself!

Clara was a feral puppy and came to me with suspicions of humans preinstalled. She is eight years old now (today!). She now has some other people besides me in her trusted circle, and can happily walk on-leash in densely populated areas. She’s good with bicycles, baby carriages, wheelchairs, and all kinds of assistive equipment. All kinds of people in all sorts of attire. She would rather not be approached, but if people have moderately polite body language, she can tolerate it. I generally arrange things so she doesn’t have to interact.

At home, she keeps an eye on the neighbors, city and construction workers, the neighborhood dogs, and other animals. But instead of fence-running, endlessly alarm barking, or evading me, she generally takes a look, expresses her opinion with a huff or two, then checks in with me.

You can see it in this unedited video. Instead of being glued to the fence and barking at the neighbors, she watches, checks in with me twice on her own, and turns on a dime when I call her. She also responds instantly when I suggest we go inside.

The video is badly recorded—sorry!

This is normal everyday behavior for her. She has learned to interrupt her own fixation on things that bother her. This was all taught with classical conditioning and positive reinforcement.

Training Self-Interruption

Clara was well prepared to learn self-interruption because I classically conditioned her as a puppy that another dog barking made wonderful food happen. I didn’t want her to “catch” my reactive dog’s habits. It worked. Classically conditioning a dog to any stimulus and then providing the goodie yourself is going to have the effect, over time, of them reorienting to you when the stimulus occurs. This gave Clara and me a jump start on interruption training.

This time it’s a squirrel

But you don’t have to do that to teach dogs to interrupt themselves. I’ll tell you the two behaviors my teacher helped me teach.

The first thing is to interrupt the dog a lot and pay super well for it. At first, only interrupt when you think their attention is wavering away from whatever has their focus. For example, when they are turning toward you anyway. If they are playing, perhaps they have taken a break and are looking around. Call them, then reinforce like crazy when they come. Gradually, you can start to call them in more difficult situations. And sometimes you can do like I did in the video and encourage the dog to go return to what she was doing. (I don’t usually encourage her to go back when she is worried about something she sees, but this time she seemed to want one more look and I thought it would work out all right.)

What I have described is part of many recall training plans. But if you do it enough and the dog will probably start to offer the behavior without a deliberate cue from you. Treat like crazy! Then build up the habit with reinforcement.

In the video, I had kibble in my hand. But Clara’s habit was built with things like roast chicken, spray cheese, and cat food in a tube!

A second thing to do is to teach the dog that treats fall from heaven whenever anything weird happens in the environment. Does a jogger appear out of nowhere? Treat! Someone drops a garbage can lid next door? Treat!

Did you notice in my video that the first time Clara runs to me is after there is a loud noise? She knows noises make treats happen. So instead of getting upset, trying to locate the noise, and barking in that general direction (which I guarantee is what she would have done without training), she runs to me.

Most of the things that get her attention in the yard worry her a bit. It may be interesting to watch the neighbors and what goes on in the street, but it’s not usually fun. Trained self-interruption gives her a way to get “unstuck.” If there’s too much going on, we go into the house, and she is glad to do so.

Because of positive reinforcement training, I never have to fight to get Clara’s attention. I don’t have to yell or nag. This dog who arrived with so many strikes against her is a dream to live with. Besides making life more pleasant, her responsiveness makes it safer for her to go out and about in the world. I can always “reach” her, and her recall is practically reflexive.

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Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson

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12 Responses to Teaching Your Dog to Self-Interrupt

  1. Sonya says:

    I read this and nodded and smiled. I was teaching this to a client today in just the way you describe…. start easy…. distract when you know you’ll get success and sneakily get harder. 10/10 for practical application.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Haha sneakily. Yep!

      And then sometimes you “break your dog” as Sue Ailsby calls it, and they stick around you more and more.

      “Hey, don’t you need to go back and see what’s going on with the construction next door?”
      “Nah, I’m good.”

      Eileen

  2. Daniela Pelgrim says:

    Hi Eileen, a wonderful and comprehensive article as usual. One question: Seeing that timing is essential for Classical conditioning, how do you preserve this when your dog is not near you when the stimulus happens? I realise that in the later stages of training, they will come to you due to the early experience with yummy treats following the trigger. But what did you do in the early stages, when the association was still being made, when your dog was not nearby? And what did you do if the dog wasn’t eating, or was eating but not really noticing the food (eg still magnetised by the trigger, still taking food but not really paying attention to it)?

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      I would feed as fast as I could get there. There’s strong science about the importance of the treat following the trigger closely in time, as you know. But I think I would err on the side of giving the food anyway, in those occasional situations, in the case of up to a few seconds delay.

      Most trainers say to go ahead and feed even if the dog isn’t paying attention/noticing. We are “talking” to the respondent behaviors of the body, and they are probably “listening.”

      Those are great questions!

  3. Sal says:

    I’ve wanted to accomplish this with my reactive dog, but just haven’t had complete success. Rugby is very good about checking in, and he often comes right to me when something is going on, but he’s barking like mad when he does it. If I offer a super reward, wont I also reinforce his barking? I have not had success with stopping his crazy barking when he’s overstimulated. He gobbles and barks! 😂

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Hi Sal,
      Sorry for my late response here; I wanted to have a good answer to your question. And I don’t, yet. Usually dogs start to self-interrupt when you give a magnificent treat for check-in, or if you give it purely for classical conditioning. But your situation with Rugby is a little more complex since he keeps barking. Sounds like there is excitement barking as well as reactivity? In most other situations, the answer is to not worry about the barking. If timing is good and you are consistent, the barking will diminish. But I don’t honestly know in your situation. I am going to consult my trusted trainer friends and see if I can get someone to weigh in.

      It does seem to me that it’s still a win if he will check in and interrupt fixation on triggers, even if he is barking all the way. But I understand your concern about not wanting to reinforce that.

      Eileen

      • Sally Hummel says:

        Thanks a bunch, Eileen! Rugby is a very complex dog to be sure, and part of the reason I have not been able to have complete success is because of all of the dynamics going on inside of him! He’s way better for sure, and I so appreciated this blog, and your shout out for other trainer friends to give me a boost with him! BIG hugs for that! Most trainers have considered Rugby a lost cause, but I don’t want to give up since I know he wants to keep trying for a better life together!! I’m going to keep working as long as he wants to try!! ❤️

        Sal

    • Hi Sal!

      It’s great that he comes to you when something is going on – sounds like you’ve got a good foundation to build on! It makes sense you’d be worried about “rewarding the barking” and it feels counter-intuitive to feed a barking dog but if the dog is upset, we feed anyway. If the dog is upset, he’s barking because of the underlying emotion of being afraid or worried. Once we can help change that negative into a positive, typically the barking dissipates. If your goal is to get his attention in any situation, I would still feed, even if he’s going off. He’s more likely to make the association of “dog goes off at me, I get food” rather than “I’m barking, I get food.” Very often dogs who are super amped up, won’t take the food we offer, but we offer it anyway, and move away to create distance to a safer distance where they will take the food – happy talking and trying to not leash jerk or pull, as much as possible. I know it’s hard to juggle all those things, but with good timing and consistency, it will work. If EVERY TIME a dog goes off at your dog, you’re raining steak, your dog will pick up on that eventually and you’ll start to see a decrease in the time between your dog going off and barking and the time it takes him to eat. That will be your first clue it’s working. In an ideal situation, you’d work it at safer distance and then get closer to what sets him off, so you have a greater chance of him eating the food and not being so worked up and worried. Good luck!

      • Sal Hummel says:

        Kate-thanks so so much for your helpful response! I’ve accidentally been inconsistent with this over the years because I just wasn’t sure about marking his barking, and you are correct that he’s gotten better! Much better in fact! He just gobbles and barks and gobbles and barks, but he does stop barking much sooner! So I’ll add in consistency with that one, and not worry about his barking and see how it goes! I think you are absolutely right in pegging his emotional response, and it truly does feel counter-intuitive to mark even if he’s barking! Outside, I can’t get him to eat a bite of anything for me because he’s totally too worried, but I’ll keep working inside and maybe I’ll be able to make additional progress with him!! I so appreciate your expertise and encouragement!! ❤️

        Sal

  4. Aileen Thomson says:

    Great article. Thank you for writing this. My dog is beginning to show this behaviour in low key situations in the garden but my dilemma is that he so often will come to me (either because I have called, or on his own) but will then go straight back to the fence to bark and run the fence line (he is fear reactive). Once he is in full reactive mode I cannot reach him until the trigger has left the vacinity. Once I can reach through to him after he has reacted and ignored me, should I still treat him when he comes or is it too late then? I have been struggling with the right approach here for a while.

    • Eileen Anderson says:

      Hi Aileen,
      OK, keep in mind that I am not a pro trainer. But I have had the problem you describe. We have this expectation that once we interrupt the dog, then the fence running is over and they’ll do something else. But it doesn’t work that way. Whether the dog was at the fence barking out of anxiety or excitement or curiosity–in all cases, what’s on the other side of the fence is the most interesting thing around. There is no reason for them not to go back unless you create a reason.

      Again, I don’t know the nuances of your situation. But when trainers do counterconditioning (scary thing predicts treat) they also try to prevent endless, uncontrolled exposures, and practicing of the old behaviors. It was not a coincidence that at the end of my video, I took Clara in the house. It seemed to be a day where she wasn’t going to be able to ignore the neighbors. So if I know my dog really can’t stay away from the fence, I’ll take her happily inside, and she’ll be getting more treats for coming with me so it’s not like “Fun is over.” If she’s moderately interested in what’s happening but not over the top, I might have a little ad hoc training session. In other words, set up another form of reinforcement and provide that for a while. When she was a puppy, I would strategically bring out the ball whenever she was going to get magnetized to a trigger. So, for example, kids playing next door came to predict playing her favorite game. We would do that for a while, and go inside.

      There are some thoughts for you. Hope this helps!

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