Positively Interrupting Behaviour
With all the dogs we’ve had and all the training and learning I’ve done over the years, there are certain cues that stick out as particularly valuable. Every class I teach – Puppy, Teens, Manners and Reactive Dogs – it’s always a cue I include in my curriculum.
The Stop is popular with dogs and owners alike! It has so many uses and makes life together with your dog that much more rewarding for you both.
Since 2014 or so, I’ve included this new cue in all my training plans with my own dogs and I’ve also started including it in my class curriculums. I have to say – it’s a winner! People love this cue! Even the dogs seem to love it!
Stop! That’s my new favorite. What’s it for? Well – just imagine some of the things your dog does that you might use that word for. Stop – digging up the plants; barking at the squirrels; teasing the cat – and so on.
Many years ago I came across a video from a trainer who worked with rescue bully breeds and he was demonstrating his use of the Stop cue. He taught all his foster dogs and clients a Stop cue. His reason for doing so was to put some level of verbal control into stopping or interrupting play between the dogs he was working with.
The dogs he had in his video were strong dogs and they had a pretty fast and furious play style. The Stop cue was designed to get the dogs to stop playing altogether or to stop and take a brief break so that play would remain fairly consistent and not escalate into something other than play. It was a great video and it lodged in the back of my mind as a really good cue to teach but I didn’t take it any further at the time.
If you’re just one person monitoring play between 2 or more strong dogs, it can be difficult to physically stop the dogs if their play starts to get a little too crazy. Pulling dogs apart during play isn’t really ideal either as tension on collars or harnesses can often increase the energy of the play making the dogs harder to separate and less thrilled about being stopped. Teaching a really solid Stop cue is a great, proactive way to solve this issue.
These 2 are having fun, but playing on leash isn’t ideal - Stop!
Fast forward a couple of years and we adopt Quincy – a 6-month-old female Doberman. At the time, a friend of mine had a dog the same age (Frankie) and we started to introduce the girls to each other and to have the occasional play date. For a time, I was looking after Frankie often and the 2 girls quickly became fast friends. At that point they were both about the same size – they weren’t that big then – but boy did they play like crazy little things when they go going! Crazy fast even in a small space like my living room. If I ever let them out into the yard together (which was a rare occasion!), I needed at least one other person to help monitor things. They both ran like the wind and were very hard to catch once they got caught up in the frenzy of their play. It was a full time job looking after them both – and exhausting!
I really didn’t want them to learn to play like idiots without taking appropriate breaks, so I had to do something about it. I remembered the Stop and decided to put it to the test.
I spent several days working on training Stop with the 2 dogs whenever we got together. Within a remarkably short time both girls were pretty good at it and it suddenly got a whole lot easier to have them together. Before too long I didn’t have to monitor them nearly as closely and I could get them to take breaks whenever I could hear or see things getting a bit too fast with very little effort on my part. Fantastic result!
Fast forward another 2 years and we adopt Doberman puppy, Jack.
At this point, Quincy has become a full-grown almost adult Doberman. She’s not big for a Doberman but she’s still a good-sized dog and pretty strong – and Jack is looking like he’s going to be a lot bigger still. The Stop will be a perfect cue to be able to control their interactions, as they both get bigger and more mature.
What does “Stop” mean?
My criterion for Stop is: Stop whatever you’re doing and come back to me and get a thousand dollars! Then – All Done!
Before I even started teaching the cue, I put quite a bit of thought into what I wanted to have happen. That’s an extremely important point! Before you begin to teach your dog anything, you need to know exactly what you want as a result. If you’re not clear what you want, your dog won’t be either and confusion can be frustrating for everyone and your training will not be successful.
I decided that if I my dogs just Stopped with nothing else following, then there was a good chance they would go back to what they were doing sooner than I might want. Also, I really liked the idea of them being close enough to put on a leash if I needed to. Now, of course I could cue “Stop” and then cue something else like a recall, but if I can accomplish all that in just one cue, why not?
Your criterion doesn’t have to be the same as mine, but make sure you have a clear idea of your end result. Also, make sure you can easily train it. If you wanted your dog to Stop and stay where he is, that would be tricky. That involves training at a distance, which is done systematically and generally takes quite a bit of time. It’s not easy to train your dog to perform things far away from you. Traditionally we often begin training our dogs quite close to us – teaching Sits, Downs, Roll Over, Play Dead, Hand Targets, etc. They become used to being close to us when performing cues or coming to us to get their reinforcement and this makes distance training quite challenging.
Let the training begin!
I began Stop training with Jack the day we adopted him – at 10 weeks of age. The results with him have been even better than I expected! Certainly, starting before his imprinting period was over made a big difference, but also because I had already trained the cue a few times before so I was very clear on how to get it and what to look for. Plus, Jack has some pretty strong drive, so he does everything with great gusto!
To begin with, ensure that you are working in an area with nothing much going on – maybe your living room or kitchen.
1. With your dog on a leash short enough that you can reach his nose, cue the word “Stop”.
2. Immediately put a really good treat right in front of his nose for him to eat. Continue to feed more treats while you take a few steps backward leading him with you as he takes and eats his treats – at least 15 (or more!) treats in all! Lavish him with some verbal praise while he follows you eating his treats.
3. Use a cue to end the exercise - “All Done!”
4. Repeat the first 3 steps at least 5 times.
1. With your dog on a short leash, cue the word “Stop” – this time pause. . .
2. As soon as your dog begins to turn toward you, anticipating that stream of treats, click or verbally mark his response - “Good!”
3. Immediately begin the continuous feeding of treats while you once again take a few steps backward and lavishly praise his brilliance. Again, feed at least 15 treats in all before stopping.
4. “All Done!”
5. Repeat at least 10 times, and then take a break.
If you aren’t getting a response, there are several reasons why this may be:
1. Your treats aren’t tasty enough.
You need to use mind-blowing, over-the-top treats for this to ultimately be a solidly trained cue. Remember that you are possibly asking your dog to come away from something really fantastic to come back to you even if it’s just for a brief moment. Make it worth their while!
2. You aren’t being generous enough.
When I mention in the steps to give your dog 15 treats, I mean at least 15. I’m not kidding! I will give at least that and even more – 25 or 35 pieces of rare roast beef. It has to be ridiculously rewarding in order to compete with taking a play break from your dog’s best friend.
Honestly the biggest mistake I see people make in their training is not being generous enough. It’s no more complicated than that – extreme generosity will pay off very generously for you in the results you see. And it’s your dog, not you, who gets decide what’s generous enough!
3. Your set up is too exciting.
If you’ve done lots of practice in your living room, don’t make the next your dog playing with their best friend! And when you do move to that step, have both dogs on leash and merely looking at each other from at least 10 feet away. If you make any incremental set up too challenging to break away from easily, your training will take a long time.
4. Your dog isn’t on leash or confined in some way.
You really need to be able to control the outcome to some extent in the initial steps. I don’t want you to use tension on the leash to get them to come back to you – the treat and the less than exciting set up should be what does the trick. However, I do want you to use the leash to prevent your dog from simply wandering off and choosing to do something else instead.
The Double Reinforcement.
Perhaps the best tip of all is to make your set up include the possibility of a double-reinforcement.
This means that whatever you Stop your dog from doing, ideally, is something he really wants to return to doing. This becomes the secondary reinforcement after the buffet of delicious treats is over.
After some initial training with low distractions, I started to use play as the second reinforcement. Every time I cued Stop, both my dogs got tons of treats and then I would say “All Done!” - back they would jump into play. Such fun and well worth the break for each of them!
You could do the same training with a friend and their dog in order to get that reinforcement of play. If you don’t have a second dog available or if your dog isn’t good with other dogs, then just be creative. The second reinforcement can be anything that your dog finds reinforcing: going off leash, chasing a ball, chasing you, getting dinner, playing tug, etc.
(Note: If your dog does not find play with another dog or play with a particular dog fun, then returning to play is NOT reinforcing. However, the relief of being able to take a break from any play or interaction that they are not enjoying IS reinforcing and will actually act as the secondary reinforcement in that moment.)
Continue to Proof your Training.
Once your training is progressing and your dog is clearly beginning to understand his Stop cue, you can begin to “proof” your training. Proofing is simply practicing and training in every circumstance you can think of in a successfully systematic way.
I didn’t go from play in my living room to free play in my backyard as the next step. Instead, we did a ton of training in my living room with longer and longer time periods of play between breaks first. Then I would introduce new toys, or something to get the excitement of the play amped up before introducing Stop breaks. I wanted to start working with bigger bursts of excitement before asking for a Stop.
I also started using it in other contexts – someone at the door, dogs barking; off leash walking away from me; staring at something out the window; barking at a squirrel; heading toward a dropped food item on the floor (tough one!), etc.
Here Jack gets to go and check out a young child sitting on the beach with a friend, then is easily able to “Stop” and come back when asked. A nice way to manage people greeting skills.
Be careful to make things easy at first when you change contexts. When I started to introduce free play in the yard, I began when they were both already tired from a long hike. Then I made sure they only interacted for mere seconds before cueing Stop – not waiting for the adrenaline to build very much at all. The reinforcements were over the top – the best food option I could come up with. I was also very close by so I could carefully watch and choose the best time to cue the behaviour – well before play escalated.
This became a very useful cue for me and I have put a lot of time and effort into the training. After about a year and a half of working with both my dogs, I can now cue them to Stop playing together anywhere (so far!) – out of sight, a long way away, with any level of play, with different dogs who don’t even know the cue themselves. It’s pretty impressive if I do say so myself. I love it!
Also, I have to say, it’s a lot of fun to do in front of people because boy does it look great when you can stop your dog in mid-flight or mid-play with their dog and have them immediately heading right back to you!
Other Uses for Stop.
I have found tons of uses for Stop:
- off leash as an alternative to my Recall
- chasing wildlife
- jumping up (not an ideal solution, but okay in an emergency)
- a lunge or pull on leash (not a good solution for constant pulling, but good in an emergency)
- spotting or thinking about chasing a jogger or biker
- stopping a potential interaction with another dog
- stopping a stare or a stalking position directed at other dogs (an important social skill for dogs)
- a great cue for people who walk more than one dog – owners or even dog walkers
- a way to stop the destruction of stuffed toys! (see my Blog post “Does Your Dog Destroy His Toys?”)
What uses can you think of for Stop?
Enjoy your training with your dog! Remember, keep it positive – and BE GENEROUS with your reinforcement!
I occasionally get asked why not just use a Recall instead? You certainly could, but in my opinion, there is a lot of value in having more than one cue that ends with your dog in front of you. I think that our dogs sometimes may have their own criteria for our training cues. I have at least 5 cues that end with my dog in front of me anticipating his reinforcement: Recall, Stop, Drop It, Leave It, Target. What about you – how many cues do you have to get your dog back to you?
STOP – it’s fun to teach, fun to do and so much more!