How does the expression go? “Don’t interrupt me! I’ll lose my train of thought.” Sometimes this principle can be used to an advantage, for instance derailing an opponent’s point in a debate by aggressively interjecting. We often hear Jeremy Paxman or John Humphries do this when interviewing politicians who insist in reciting the same practiced dialogue over and over again.
Back in the 1990’s I saw the prominent animal behaviourist perform exactly the same technique on a Weimeraner. The Weimeraner was an adult bitch whose owners drove a large four wheel drive car which they used to deliver newspapers. The dog loved this car and saw it as her own mobile territory. If someone approached the car, she would initially bark. If the individual continued to approach the car, her barking became more aggressive and she would lunge towards them. Most people would take the hint and back off from her at this point. However if you felt she was confined to the car you might just continue to walk by and ignore her which was fine if she was truly confined to the car. If the owner had just nipped off to post a newspaper and the car door was ajar or a window was open to provide ventilation, anyone who seemingly failed to heed her warnings and continued to approach her car was in danger of more than just being barked at! This is exactly what had happened on one occasion and a member of the public ended up with a nasty bite to their thigh and this precipitated the consultation with the specialist.
During the consultation the history was recorded, the dog was examined in the clinic and lots of pertinent advice was duly given to the owners. He then decided to assess her response to a “bark control” collar. The owners and I looked quizzically at each other not really understanding why a collar designed to reduce barking would prevent aggressive behaviour. He went on to explain that very often once behaviour is initiated it progresses in a series of predetermined steps unless something prevents it. In the case of our dog, someone approaches the car, the dog barks, becoming progressively more aggressive if they continue to approach the car before lunging. If they continue to approach, in her mind, she has little option but to back up her audible and postural threats with physical violence. The premise was that if you could interrupt the behaviour near its inception then you just might prevent its progression to violence. If truth be known we were all a little sceptical about the chances of success for this approach, the specialist, but it seemed harmless to attempt it.
The dog was fitted with a bark control collar in the clinic and taken out to her car in the car-park. She was put in the car by one of the owners and then she and I stood back to watch whilst the specialist approached the car. The dog watched he approach and when he was within 3 meters of the car she barked. The collar discharged its spray and she stopped. He continued to approach the car and she didn’t respond in a threatening or aggressive way again, instead she simply watched him approach the car, stop by it and touch it. He was able to open the car, attach a lead to the dog and walk her over to the amazed owners. The dog’s behaviour had been successfully interrupted and the escalation in threatening behaviour averted. At this point the owners were advised to use the bark control collar whenever the dog was in the car and a number of volunteer “stooges” were to be found to offer her treats if she continued to behave when they approached the car. The strategy here was to encourage her to see strangers as good people associated with food rewards.
There is little doubt that this event was successful, one interruption completely extinguished any further aggressive behaviour. Not all attempts using such techniques are as successful but never the less it is a valuable tool in the dog trainer’s tool box.
Interruption is just one technique that is commonly used by professional dog trainers; others include gaining and maintaining attention and inhibition. Inhibition of an undesirable behaviour should only be utilised by professional dog trainers because it uses intense stimulations to prevent dangerous habits like chasing livestock. Interruptions, however, can be successfully used by owners who want to train their dogs. Interruptions vary in their intensity but are generally “startling” and never painful. It appears that it is the startling nature of the event that is important irrespective of how unpleasant it is. They can take many forms from ultrasonic sound, vibration, scented or unscented spray and low to medium level static pulse. The skill is in selecting a form of interruption at the correct intensity that will interrupt the undesirable behaviour that you are trying to prevent. There is an important principle that needs to be applied here, LIMA. LIMA is an acronym for “least intrusive, minimally aversive”, which means don’t use a form or intensity bigger than necessary to get the job done. The “factory-settings” for bark control collars are ideal for discouraging barking so if your dog’s undesired behaviour is heralded by barking there is a good chance that a bark control collar may help prevent escalation to the undesired behaviour.
Other owners prefer to interrupt undesirable behaviour by encouraging the dog to perform some basic obedience tasks, sit, come, stay, down etc. If the dog can be made to perform a well drilled obedience task it may be interrupted from engaging in the undesirable behaviour. The reliability of basic obedience training can be enhanced using attention training techniques using electronic training collars at low level static pulse intensities. That’s a topic for another day!
David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®