One of the more interesting things I get to do as a trainer is play around with trigger sequences.

A trigger sequence is the series of things that leads to a particular behavior. So for example when you want your dog to sit, the sequence that you would use to trigger that behavior might be saying the word “Sit” and holding one hand palm up in front of her. If you change the word or the hand signal, you may not get the behavior you want because you have altered the sequence.

Most sequences are more complicated than that, even if they don’t appear so. That sit sequence, for example, might also involve only the right hand, a certain tone, a tilt of the head, a lean forward. Not knowing that could cause one to fail in getting a sit and to frustrate thinking the dog is being “stubborn” because she is not following orders.

Proofing commands involves pulling apart that sequence, presenting one piece at a time, making sure that the dog will perform the desired behavior when only one trigger is available, say just the word “Sit” or just the hand signal. Though somewhat laborious, it is the way to best get a reliable response from your dog.

Trigger sequences are involved in all sorts of behaviors, from sits and downs to separation anxiety to barking at the door or pulling on the leash or snapping, etc.

What’s really cool and fun about them is discovering them (say when I test a rescue to see what commands he knows) and also experimenting with altering them. Sometimes you can stop a “bad” behavior immediately by disrupting the sequence, say removing or altering even one piece.

I have found this can happen a lot with barking. Which is good, because barking drives people crazy, so it’s nice to be able to sometimes get a quick change on something like that. I like to play with my tone. People love to yell at their dogs to knock it off, which typically only serves to escalate the barking. So I will try a “What’s that?” inquiry-type tone, or “Good job!” praise to see if the dog will be confused enough to look at me like “Huh?” or at least hesitate for a moment, long enough for me to get in there and redirect.

One example that’s fun to relate involves a Westie I worked with recently. Her barking at the front window was driving her owners nuts (and they had tried “everything”). While they were standing there, I prevented a barking frenzy as two people passed the house by simply saying “Who’s that? Good girl!” over and over while the people went by. The owners were literally gobsmacked, but all I did was change the trigger sequence. With a piece missing, it didn’t prompt her usual reaction. Was she “fixed?” Heavens, no. But it was a start.

So the next time your dog starts to do something you don’t like, see of you can figure out the trigger sequence, or at least one part of it, and try to mess up the sequence. Try to laugh instead of yelling! If it stops the behavior, remember to jump in with a boatload of rewards so you can cement that “good” behavior sequence in your dog’s brain. Easier said than done, I know…