Whether you are teaching your dog new behaviors or trying to fix problems, your positive/rewards-based trainer will often say to ignore the behaviors you don’t want.

While this makes sense for some things — barking at you for attention, for example — many other behaviors will be unaffected by ignoring and can cause many a frustrated POG to conclude positive methods don’t work, and the only way s/he can get the desired result is to resort to correction and punishment.

Truth is, you can ignore countersurfing all day long and you won’t stop it because the reward for it is usually not attention, but rather getting some good stuff off the counter. (I say usually — I had a doodle in group class who had actually figured out a great way to get his POG’s attention was to jump on the empty counter. Every time he did that, the POG would rush into the kitchen shouting “Hey!” The dog would get down immediately, but would go right back up when the POG left the room. Dang smart doodles!)
There are many other examples like countersurfing where the dog’s payoff is not attention, thereby rendering ignoring useless in most cases.

What I usually tell clients is ignore the behavior BUT ALSO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Well, that certainly makes no sense on the surface, does it? You can’t do something and not do something at the same time.

That’s not what I mean. But that’s often what my clients hear. And that may point to the real problem here: The word “ignore” is a poor choice to use when describing for our clients what we need them to do.

So I am calling myself out–time to step up, take responsibility and fix it!

Introducing: Low Energy Interruptions (LEI)
Before I went to the dogs, I spent close to 20 years in the writing, editing and publishing fields. Not surprisingly, I am very fussy about word choice. (See my Words Matter! document for suggestions on how to replace out-of-date training vocabulary.) So I am prepared to take a swing at redefining the “ignore” method of behavior modification.

In most cases, what I am really talking about is not ignoring the unwanted behaviors but rather interrupting them — with as little energy as possible. Pair that action with rewarding the desired behaviors with a lot of energy, and the dog now has clear communication: the desired behavior benefits the dog more, and the pragmatic dog will choose that behavior over the one that benefits him less.

Most of us tend to ignore our dogs when they are behaving themselves, but then give tons of attention whenever we see a “bad” behavior — we talk, yell, snap the leash, grab the collar, etc. (i.e. gasoline, meet match). This is exactly the opposite of what we should be doing! (My book, Reverse Dog Training, grew out of this observation.) We need to reverse course completely — emphasis on “right” behavior, well rewarded — to get the results we want.

I want to replace “ignore” with Low Energy Interruption (LEI). I believe it better conveys the idea that you do need to do something, but that something needs to be minimal. A minor course correction, if you will, on the way to the behavior that will be clearly more desirable for the dog because of the difference in energy (reward/benefit) it produces.

Example time! #1 Jumping
I have dealt with a LOT of jumping, including that of my own dog, a pogo-stick bouncer as well as a pile-driver (36 pounds launched right at my chest) who hasn’t jumped on anyone for a very long time (she’s been with me since 2004 and stopped jumping altogether within the first year).

I always start by telling clients what doesn’t work — coincidentally all the things people think will work — including saying “No,” “Off” or “Down”; asking for a Sit after a jump; turning your back; or any rough stuff like pushing, kneeing, stepping on leash, etc.

Invariably, the client asks, “What do I do then, just ignore it?”

While the best situation is preventing the jumping altogether so it extinguishes, for most POGs it’s not realistic because they are not watching their dogs constantly, so mistakes and “bad” behavior will happen. And since we humans tend to be reactive rather than proactive, we often will react without even thinking, whether we intend to or not. Reacting in a big way will confuse the dog and cause him to try it again, so we need a different reaction. A small one.

Enter LEI. This is how I do it:
1- Dog jumps.
2- I look up and away (think snobby), and take one step forward/toward the jump (LEI).
3- I wait to see if the dog gets down. If not, I help him by rotating a hip slightly to slide him off but maintain my position (LEI). Note I DO NOT turn away.
4- Dog gets down.
5- I look at him and say “Hi, buddy! How are you? Are you a good dog?”
6- Usually, the dog jumps again at that point.
7- Repeat steps 2-5 till he doesn’t jump when I talk to him. Then:
8- Immediately say GOOD and squat/bend down to his level to love on him for making the right choice.

(If he starts to get jumpy at this point, simply go back to step 2.)

Using this technique allows the dog to clearly see the difference in payoff to him between jumping and not jumping. Obviously, “four on the floor” (all feet on the ground) is the better choice, i.e. the one he should want to repeat, because it gets him tons of what he wants (attention).

This can work even for attention-seeking situations where you could ignore the dog, like barking. Barking drives me nuts, and usually it goes on way too long, well beyond my maximum patience level. I want to interrupt that barking so I can create and reward quiet. Yelling uses too much energy and gets us so frustrated that if he does finally shut up we can’t reward him because we don’t even want to see him at that moment!

Example Time! #2 Barking
Before I give you this one, I must state that barking is a complicated issue because there are many reasons why dogs bark! Ask yourself “What is he getting out of it?” before deciding how to deal with it.

Here is one real-life example of how I used LEI for barking:

A rescued adult beagle mix was carrying on loudly and relentlessly at the feet of his POG at every feeding until the bowl was on the ground. This soft-spoken woman got so frustrated she would scream at the dog thusly: “SHUUUUUT UUUUUUP!” Since I was standing there in her kitchen, this obviously was not working. I asked if I could try dealing with it my way, and 10 minutes later, he was quiet during the feeding prep.

Here are the steps I followed in this case (NOTE: every dog is different, and there are many small adjustments that can be made here to more effectively communicate with each dog):
1- Put bowl and food on counter. (Have some food already in the bowl.)
2- Dog starts barking.
3- Look up and away, silently count to 10.
4- Dog keeps barking.
5- Make a slight, quick LEI movement (in this case, I turned my head and upper body one way, then the other, took about a second)
6- Dog stops barking for a second to figure out what I’m doing.
7- IMMEDIATELY SAY ‘GOOD’ AND HAND HIM A PIECE OF FOOD.
8- Dog starts barking.
9- Look up and away, silently count to 15.
10- If dog pauses for even a second, IMMEDIATELY SAY ‘GOOD’ AND HAND HIM A PIECE OF FOOD. If not, repeat steps 5-9 until he starts pausing on his own. Then:
11- When he is quiet, say GOOD and pick up the bowl.
12- If he stays quiet, keep saying GOOD and lower the bowl towards the floor. EVERY TIME HE BARKS, PUT THE BOWL BACK ON THE COUNTER AND LOOK AWAY TILL HE STOPS.
13- Repeat 11 and 12 until you have the bowl on the floor.
14- Repeat, repeat, repeat! until he is quiet from start to finish.

Because there was such a clear difference between benefit for barking (no food) and quiet (here comes food!) PLUS it had the assistance of an LEI (to limit frustration and barking time), the change came quickly. Over time, the support would be peeled away so the end result would be the normal procedure of pouring the food and placing it on the floor while the dog quietly watches.

I hope this new term and its explanation helps POGs everywhere to fix problems quickly, with minimal frustration and maximum joy!