It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

Zani head tilt

Zani keeps her eyes on me a large part of the time

Some dog trainers who use tools such as shock, prong, or slip collars, or startle the dog with thrown objects or loud noises, claim that these things are done only to “get the dog’s attention.” They may further insist that the dog is not hurt, bothered, or scared.

This sounds like the Holy Grail of dog training. It’s the Magical Attention Signal! It can get your dog’s attention, get him to do something, or stop doing something, all rolled into one. You don’t have to use those pesky treats or toys, and it certainly doesn’t hurt or bother the dog!

Gosh, who wouldn’t want that? Life would be so easy with the Magical Attention Signal!

Unfortunately,  the Magical Attention Signal is utter nonsense.

Nonsense Clue #1

We almost never want only our dog’s attention.

Let’s say that your Magical Attention Signal is tossing a lightweight coaster towards your dog. Your dog doesn’t particularly care about coasters. (Folks with disc-crazy dogs, hang on, I’ll get to you.) So you toss the coaster and the dog looks up. Yay, success! You’ve got the dog’s attention. Mission accomplished!

Um, no. Of course we don’t want only the dog’s attention. When we want their attention, it’s for a reason. The reason is almost always one of two things: to get them to do something or stop doing something. Getting their attention is only the bare beginning.

Nonsense Clue #2

Non-predictive stimuli are subject to habituation.

Habituation: A decrease in response following repeated exposure to a non-threatening stimulus.–Klein, Thorne: (2006) Biological Psychology

Virtually all of us have experienced habituation to something that was initially novel. Let’s say you move to a new house. It’s barely within earshot of an elevated train or metro track. When you first move in, you notice the sound of the train regularly: maybe a whistle, or just the rumble.

Elevated trainAt first it gets your attention. However, it gradually sinks in that there are no relevant consequences to that sound for you. The train schedule doesn’t affect vehicle or pedestrian traffic in any way. You don’t have to arrange your day around it. None of your loved ones ride it or work for the railroad. The noise is faint and there aren’t any noxious fumes. It doesn’t predict danger. In fact the train noise doesn’t predict anything for you, good or bad.

So what happens to the stimulus of train noise?  Habituation. You stop noticing it. It fades into the background. Our minds sift through stuff all the time to determine predictors of good and bad consequences. Things to seek and things to avoid. Low-intensity stimuli with no consequences fall to the bottom of the priority stack.*

Animals, including dogs, do this sifting too. Some dogs are noticeably good at it, like my Clara, who often knows my behavior patterns better than I do. And when you think about it, loads of the stuff we humans do has some kind of predictive value to our dogs. Turning on the TV. Getting dressed. Opening the refrigerator. Sighing. Even pulling down a book from the bookshelf.

I had a hard time thinking of a regularly occurring non-predictive stimulus in my life with my dogs, but here’s one. For my own dogs, the automatic switching on and off the the central heating and air means nothing. They hear it intermittently all day long, but it is just background noise to them. If the temperature weren’t well controlled, or if one of them was extremely hot- or cold-natured, she might start to notice and take the opportunity to go lie next to the air vent. Then the sound of the heat and air clicking on would become predictive, and start rising up in the stack of “things to notice.”

So the upshot is that if we want our dogs to keep responding to a stimulus, it generally has to be quite strong in itself, or have a consequence. Good or bad, your choice. But not neutral.

What Really Happens?

So how might our thrown coaster stimulus work? We have determined that if it were non-predictive, it probably wouldn’t continue to get the dog’s attention. So if it works consistently to get the dog’s attention, what’s going on?

There are four relevant possibilities:

  1. Terrier w Frisbee


    Having a coaster suddenly land nearby could be intrinsically desirable to the dog. Maybe you have a loopy goofy retriever and he loves having something thrown near him, even if it’s just a coaster. He probably grabs it and plays with it. However, it may have failed as an attention-getting device. He’s playing with the toy, not looking up at you. And if you threw it when he was doing something you didn’t like, you would have accidentally reinforced the bad behavior. “Yay! I got a toy when I barked at Grandma!” (This can happen when people try to interrupt or punish with squirt bottles. Some dogs think being squirted is wonderful.)

  2. Startled boxer

    Oh no!

    It could be intrinsically aversive to the dog. I would wager that this is the case for many dogs, especially at first. Something flying through the air, appearing suddenly close and making a noise could startle them. Some dogs would habituate to it, and some might never do so. If they didn’t habituate, this could work as a way of getting your dog to pay attention to you. There’s a big drawback though:  that startled, fearful response would likely become associated with you. You become the scary person who throws stuff.

  3. Clicker

    Oh boy!

    It could predict something desirable for the dog. Maybe your dog is not turned on by coasters. But what if, every time you tossed the coaster, you then threw a treat or a toy? The dog would quickly learn that the coaster toss predicted great stuff (in the same way that clickers are typically used). If you were to toss the coaster a number of times, pairing it with good stuff, after the dog learned to the association you could use it to interrupt undesirable behavior. This is the principle of the “positive interrupter.” But you don’t have to throw anything. If you are close enough to toss a coaster, a simple noise or word would do. And it’s pretty clear that the promoters of the Magical Attention Signal are not using it this way.

  4. Tsst

    Oh oh!

    It could predict something aversive for the dog. Like Cesar Millan’s “Tsst!,” it could predict a kick or a jab in the neck. Or something less dramatic, like being yelled at or handled roughly. This might not have been the trainer’s or owner’s intent from the start. But if the startling effect of the thrown coaster wears off (version #2), a stronger consequence will need to be added. Then the thrown coaster would become either a punishment marker (“Fido, you are about to get it”) or a threat (“Fido–hop to it or you are going to get it”). This is also how most shock collar training works. When a trainer brags that he uses only an extremely low, non-aversive level, that is because the dog has already been taught that the shock can easily be escalated if he doesn’t comply. Otherwise we are left only with the Magical Attention Signal.**

By the way, #4 illustrates the concept of the “punishment callus.” One of the paradoxical problems with using an aversive is that most people want to start out light. But if you try that on strongly entrenched dog behaviors like barking, digging, or jumping up, the behavior may well prove to be too strong. Then you will be in the position of having to escalate. And often the dog’s ability to tolerate the aversive will escalate right alongside.

No Magical Attention Signal

Many promoters of aversive tools to use in dog training don’t want to say that they ever hurt or scare or startle or nag or bully dogs. And our mythology about dogs is so strong that most of us want to believe them. Hence, the lure of the magic signal that works all by itself, with no other consequences. I hope this post will bolster your “nonsense detector.” Behavior is driven by consequences. If no change in consequences occurs, there is no reason for a behavior to change.

If someone says that Tool A, B, or C is designed to “get the dog’s attention,” ask them what happens next. Once they get the dog’s attention, how do they actually get the dog to do something or stop doing something? Also ask them what happens if the “painless” tool fails to get the dog’s attention.

The Magical Attention Signal is not going give any lasting help on its own. Learning theory and common sense (if only we could apply it when we think about dogs!) tell us that behavior has consequences. We take actions for a reason. We act to get stuff we want. To avoid stuff we don’t like. All creatures with a brain stem, and more primitive creatures as well, from what I hear, do this.

A woman with her back partially to the camera is sitting on a lawn. There is a wooden fence in the background. Three dogs are lying down nearby, all looking into her eyes.

Rapt attention in the back yard

But the good news: if you keep conscious control of the reinforcers in your life with your dogs, use those reinforcers to strengthen behaviors you like, teach alternatives to behaviors that you don’t, you will have a head start on getting great attention from your dog.

All photos except the one of my dog Zani and the one with my three dogs are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. The boxer photo was cropped.

* This is a simplification of habituation. The extent of habituation depends on several characteristics of the stimulus and organism. Here is a review article: Rankin, et al. [2009.] Habituation Revisited: An Updated and Revised Description of the Behavioral Characteristics of Habituation. Neurobiol Learn Mem. Sep 2009; 92(2): 135–138.

**We could also add, looking at the four quadrants, that the thrown coaster could predict the cessation of something aversive, or the removal of something good.  But I think these are pretty unlikely usages.

Coming Up:

  • Punishment is not a Feeling
  • Why Counterconditioning Didn’t “Work”
  • How Skilled are You at Ignoring? (Extinction Part 2)
  • What if Respondent Learning Didn’t Work?

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About eileenanddogs

Passionate amateur dog trainer and writer. Eileen Anderson on Google+
This entry was posted in Cues, Human and dog misunderstandings, Operant conditioning, Punishment culture, Reinforcement, Terminology and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!

  1. Very timely post as I posted this Cesar Millan video (6:50 on the timer if you are in a rush) and this one and received tremendous retorts from the abuse crowd of outdated traditional trainers and CM disciples. Most of the retorts were iterations of Cesar babble, such as “It does not send an actual shock through their body, such as an electric fence, instead it sends a quick vibrate to their brain to snap them out of their bad behavior. It helps Cesar because it may ruin the process standing over the dog at every second in case of a problem. “ and “I saw him both times putting the shock collar on, but there are different ways to use a shock collar and different settings. Perhaps you should research those ways, such as vibration and not shock. “… makes me ill.

  2. Well said! The only time I can see a startle noise being useful is in an emergency, for example to break up a dog fight. It should not be a training tool. I think that, as humans, we have a hard time with deferring gratification, and want dogs to respond, or to stop unwanted behavior, instantly. We forget that the process of learning takes time – I’m sure none of us knew our “times tables” or had the Gettysburg Address memorized, the first time it was presented to us. (Does anyone still do times tables or memorize the GA?) Anyway, I think that people would be surprised at how quickly we can modify behavior if we just abandon a few simple impediments: impatience, stinginess, and zebra-hunting. Impatience is the enemy of good training. It’s much better to establish a written training plan, set criteria wisely, and progress at the dog’s pace. Stinginess is the hardest thing to remedy – that’s the old “when can I stop using treats” refrain. The using of treats is a GOOD thing, so long as you do it in the right order, and the more you reinforce a behavior, the faster the dog learns and retains it! Zebra hunting is what happens when someone doesn’t know how to write a training plan, and uses less than accurate technique – they assume that the method doesn’t work, and go off hunting another one. Fads are fueled in this way, but mostly they lead to disappointment, too, if the underlying science isn’t sound, or the handler is unskilled.

  3. Marjorie says:

    I have to say, it always blows my mind that positive trainers/teachers still have to have this conversation. If someone threw a bag of chains at me, they may get my attention but not my respect. If they shocked, choked or pinched me I would not be in a receptive state to learn anything new. I’d be scared, confused and angry. However, if you brought out food and maybe a book (one of MY favorite things) I’d be willing to do just about anything. You sure would have my attention. I wonder, is it that people are too cheap to buy treats? Are they too panicked about their dog gaining weight (our culture has such a fat phobia)? Is their such a lack of power in their own lives that they need to laud it over another? Is it that being a bully comes naturally/instinctively and positive reinforcement involves a certain level of consciousness? Are they addicted to drama so that “training” needs to look like a “big deal?” Do they lack empathy and compassion? I honestly, just don’t get it!

  4. Marcia says:

    A young lady who has had difficulty managing and training her dog has purchased a “static” collar, marketed as not a shock collar, but just providing enough static (painless of course) to get the dog’s attention. Is static collar a euphemism for shock collar, a repackaging of the shock collar in order to shed some of the bias of consumers? Or is this some mid-point between no stimulus and a shock? It concerns me.

  5. Pingback: Are prong collars really that bad?? - Page 11

  6. Lisa says:

    My dogs bark when we let them out in the yard. Often there are no people or dogs walking by but they just bark anyway – like standing in the middle of the lawn and barking or barking near the fence at an empty street. I call them and treat them for coming straight away – and they fully expect treats when they come – but unless I let them inside, they will go back to barking – and then, the youngest, looking for the treat.
    A trainer (supposedly positive) told me to get in front of the dogs and tell them NO in a firm voice and not to treat them for coming when I called. I do intermittently rewards for calm behaviour, however the barking seems to be a reward in its own right. I am not really sure how to interrupt their barking, other than rewarding them for coming when I call, but at the same time I’m afraid they’re getting the idea to bark first, make me call them and then get a treat. Any ideas and thoughts would be greatly appreciated.

    • I’ll catch up comment replies soon, but in the meantime I hope a pro or two will chime in about Lisa’s question. Thanks!

    • awesomedogs says:

      Lisa, Try thinking of it in terms of the dog’s point of view.

      “If I bark, it is fun. And if I bark, the people will ask them to stop and that means cookies. No = cookies!” If you think about it that way, you realize that bark – no! – treat would probably increase barking (with then dog stopping for a cookie once in a while.)

      We would want, “Step out side – stay quiet – treat.” That way the dog is staying quiet. We don’t really care if the dog is walking, sitting, playing. So long as they are quiet.

      At first, you will probably have to reinforce quickly. “How long can you stay quiet for?” Gradually slow down on how often you give a treat.

      If the dog barks, have them be quiet, and start your mental “timer” again. “You need to stay quiet for this amount of time for a treat” You might find you have to adjust the length of time based on the dog’s abilities. Keep them successful.

      If you do that correctly, you should find that the dog stays quiet most of the time. Most owners seem to be okay with that. But if you want take it further, then you can teach a “quiet” cue. That way you can remind the dog that they need to be quiet. I wouldn’t do that until you get quiet most of the time.

      • Lisa says:

        Thank you for taking the time to answer ☺️. I already feel like I am doing the above i.e. rewarding calmness. But it is not having much of an affect so either I am not doing it correctly or my dogs do not relate that they are being quiet with the reason they are getting treats. We do spend quite a lot of time in the garden these days and I’m not sure how to best interrupt them when they do start barking at someone walking past or at nothing. My youngest (5 year old) comes happily when I call because he gets treats and is very food motivated, but my oldest (10 years old) will finish her barking first before she comes. I do treat them when they are lying quietly but I really don’t think they connect that with the treat. Is there a better way to interrupt the barking once it starts – keeping in mind that there’s quite a long way from one end of the garden to the other. We are also currently building a more solid fence in parts of the garden so there isn’t such an easy view of the street. One dog trainer felt this would just actually make the barking worse???
        Any comment ?
        I appreciate it is hard to give advice without seeing the situation but the local dog-trainers here that I have sought help from are not really positive trainers although they claim to be.
        Thanks for taking the time to comment!

  7. ksammie3 says:

    This is a very well written piece. One of your best!

    Unfortunately, this is still a conversation we have to have. Even some people who consider themselves to be +R have no issue with use of things like pennies in a can to “snap a dog out of bad behavior” to “get their attention”.

    This will serve as a nice resource to share in discussions on this question.

  8. Marjorie says:

    I’m no pro, but in regards to Lisa’s barking in the yard issue, I’d take it one step further after interrupting the barking, I’d then re-direct and either engage them in play or get them involved in a “find it” sniffing game (throwing a handful of small treats for them to find). HIding treats in the yard can help as well. Sniffing is both a calming and mentallay stimulating activity.

  9. Lisa says:

    Thank you Marjorie, I do give them frozen treats and hide food in the yard, but there is still plenty of time for barking 😄

  10. Patty Glynn says:

    As an alternative to scary noises with scary consequences for getting a dog’s attention, I love Emily Larlham’s video on conditioning a POSITIVE interrupter.

  11. tajmutthall says:

    Well-thought-out article. Your link was posted on FB and since this topic interests me, I had to come and read it. Two bonuses for me: *THANK YOU* for giving credit for the photos to Wikimedia Commons; you might imagine how very many sites don’t bother, or even take credit for them themselves. And one of them is even mine, although it’s cropped out of a larger original (the clicker), which is why it’s a bit blurry.

    • Glad you liked the post! I love using Wikimedia Commons and Tumblr. I usually credit each photo separately but was tight on space in this one, so put it at the bottom. Thanks for contributing to Wikimedia. I have contributed one so far, but intend to upload some more.

      • tajmutthall says:

        Yeah, my first 15000 edits or so on wikipedia were trying to get all the dog stuff going–everything dog related that we could think of. 10 years ago when there was almost nothing. Fun for a while. Posted lots of dog-related photos. Always glad when more people contribute.

        • Wow! I’m impressed! Thank you! And that’s your pic of the happy dog being clicker trained. The one that everyone uses. I’m glad to know you! OK, you’ve inspired me. I’ll be getting some dog body language photos up there soon. Anybody else game?

          • tajmutthall says:

            “The one that everyone uses,” LOL! Yes, I’ve seen it in various places, too,or friends send me email to let me know that it’s being used. I always assumed it was just coincidence that people notice it, but I like your comment; glad that I’ve been able to help people make their points. That’s Tika. She’s 13 now but still gets excited when the clicker comes out, as does my 9-yr-old border collie. (This is the photo, for others:

            I have a new 3-yr-old dog that I’m working with, and your comments and the link the someone posted of the premack principle make me think that I should make an effort to be videotaping some of my work. I’m no expert, but I’ve clicker-trained 4 dogs now through tricks and behavior and some agility (although most of that is toy reward). New one is catching on slowly.

            Body language photos would be cool. I’ll have to think about how to contribute, but I’d love to see yours. You’re also welcome to browse my blog for appropriate photos, although it’s huge and goes on forever.

            • I think videos by “less-than-experts” can be really helpful for other “less-than-experts”! Hope you consider doing some videos.

              My body language resources are mostly here: . I already give the photos of Clara stressed out of her mind to anyone who asks, and I was thinking of doing something like that on Wikimedia.

  12. kimberlygauthier says:

    I’m not a trainer. We have four dogs and they can get rowdy at times. We don’t hit or yell. If one of us is frustrated, the other takes over. We have a great system going.

    We do use a “tsst” sound with our dogs to get their attention. I find it interesting that without people seeing using it, I’ve been accused of abuse, adversive training, and someone even insinuated that we hit our dogs. None of that could be further from the truth. We use it to get their attention, because when they hear that noise, they look to use to see what’s happening. When they’re all settled and focused on us, we wait a beat, and then there are treats all around.

    I’m confused as to why this is adversive or abuse. I’m starting to learn that dog training definitely isn’t black and white and it’s a very passionate subject. Especially when Cesar Millan is thrown into the mix. I just want to understand how our dogs think and how best to communicate with them.

    • Kimberly, if the treats regularly follow the attention (doesn’t have to be every time, but that that’s the main consequence), you have conditioned a “positive interrupter.” And you’ve built in a little behavior chain (waiting for calm attention) to boot. I mention that scenario in the blog as #3. There’s a link in there for instructions (also in a previous comment) in how to create one. Not that it sounds like you need it, but for comparison. It’s too bad that sound is associated with CM; you are going to have to explain it forever more. But you can describe it as a positive interrupter, and that the consequence of their attending to you is a treat. The “Tssst” is not a threat or a predictor of bad stuff.

      I love your system of the person who gets frustrated bows out. How nice for everybody!

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