Monday, February 3, 2014

All-Done and Later: The Dog's Off Switch and Not Now Signals

Imagine someone you like, a friend or your partner, invites you to do something together. While you are at it, suddenly and without a word, s/he disengages and walks away. Would you be: Confused? Frustrated? Conflicted? Worried? Follow to draw out why s/he has left? What will happen next? Maybe coax him or her to continue with the pleasurable interaction you enjoyed moments ago?
That scenario is exactly what many dogs are confronted with. The human invites the dog, by calling her name or any other understood start-up signal, to a mutual activity. Unless it involves force and pain, the dog is likely excited about spending quality time with her person, and then, at one point and without announcement, the human decides to end it: He stops throwing the ball, withdraws attention and eye contact, disconnects mentally and perhaps walks away, leaving the dog clueless what will happen next.
Like it would with you, that generates frustration and confusion, and like you, the dog wants to continue what felt good, and might paw her person, nose jab or mouth, whine or bark, or brashly shove herself in between if her person is attending to another dog, or child, or hugging his partner. Any of these behaviors typically prompts a reaction, and in that context any kind of attention is reinforcing, and that means that the dog will paw, bark, mouth… again to get attention and re-ignite an interaction.

Dogs who act like that often get the dominant label, but wrongly so; Demanding attention, even rudely, has nothing to do with dominance, but everything with what the dog has learned works to get attention.
Ignoring the dog is an option and often the advice trainers give, but in reality many owners find it difficult, if not impossible, to ignore a persistent dog's inappropriate attention getting behaviors and expressions of increasing frustration that result when the attention isn't manifesting. 
An important piece of information, a specific cue that announces that you are about to disengage and that no more reinforcements are going to be coming from you until further notice, can help. I use a verbal all-done, followed with a hand signal, and I completely ignore my dog thereafter.

Here's the hitch: A cue is only useful when it's known, and until then the dog will likely display the above-mentioned undesired behaviors because she is still frustrated and confused, and still wants to continue the activity. If she is determined enough, most owners will still respond, so we’re back at square one.
To prevent that, I initially sandwich one thing in between telling my dog that I am about to end the interaction and ignoring her: I direct her to the toy box I spiked with treats, or a filled Kong, or something else yummy or novel, prior. My goal is to make self-entertainment attractive after the all-done, the signal that provides clarity that I am going to do human only stuff for some time. If successful, chances are that looking for stimulation in the toy box eventually becomes a self-directed behavior.
Once your dog knows all-done and moseys on instead of pestering you, use it in various contexts. Naturally, she might not always choose the toy box, but sometimes just hang out nearby, or when you end an interaction outside, sniff or play with a stick, and that’s okay too.

The off switch cue is the opposite to name attention, the dog’s on switch. Binary information makes the world comprehensible for your dog, and thus lowers frustration and arousal and its undesired expressions.
You are not disconnecting without an explanation, leaving a social companion in a mental vacuum and confused about you, but rather you are giving your dog the same courtesy you’d give a human partner. Thus, teaching all-done is important for your relationship.
And it comes handy in a training class between exercises: With your dog in signaled disengagement, you can pay attention to the instructor. Of course you could also command a mat stay, but I like to allow my dog to do as she pleases within the 6-foot leash range. With all-done she can stand, move a bit, or sniff - just not bug me.

A related informational cue I use daily is later.
I like to be the one who ends an interaction, but my dogs can surely solicit for one. When bored, or when they think it’s time for us to play or go for a walk, they saunter in, or make eye contact, wag their tail and maybe bow or stretch. Looking for attention from a group member is normal social behavior, not dominance, and I don’t want to ignore it because that too triggers frustration and messes with the relationship I want with my dog. Especially soft and polite behaviors I want to reinforce, but I also respond to a bark or whine cause a dog snubbed when she needs something will in all likelihood turn the volume up till she is heard.
However, realistically I don’t always have time to jump into action right away: I might be expecting a phone call, or am in a train of thought, or answering an email, or trapped in a book’s chapter.
Later, followed with a non-verbal “in five” hand signal – you know, the spread five fingers and palm out one – communicates that “I am unavailable at the moment, but feel free to check back in a little while”. With later I acknowledge my dog and connect while buying time for me. By giving clear information I, again, avoid that my dog becomes frustrated.
In the beginning, later might only give you a couple of seconds before your dog checks back, and you might have to, much like the beginning stages of all-done, guide her into an alternate action to help her understand, but with practice, and unless something is urgent, eventually later can mean you get to do your own thing for another ½ hour or so.
When the dog solicits again, you can give another later or oblige, which is what I usually do cause seriously, if I don’t have a few minutes to spend with my dog, and especially after she’s been so patient, why have a dog in the first place.


  1. Once again you hit the nail on the head and if anyone does not think your puppy understands this should see Will. I am one of the ones who has to be more committed and not an enabler. Thanks again for reminding us to be consistent.

  2. Perfect timing for this blog. Foster pup Pixie is quick to paw at me when she wants to snuggle or be on my lap, something that isn't always possible. Now I have some homework to do with her!