Teach Your Dog to Have an Off Switch

Some dogs won’t take “no” for an answer. When you stop playing fetch, Fido responds with jumps and barks. When you try to stop petting Pattie, she crawls into your lap and demands more, more, more. Or when a training session has come to an end, Rover silently protests by staring at you for five minutes. If any of these sound familiar, it’s time to teach your pup to have an “off” switch.

We can’t fault our dogs for demanding things. After all, when they beg for food, attention, or play, it tends to work! When your pup nudges your hand for one more scratch, there is a pretty good chance that you’ll give in and start petting her again. And thus a habit of demanding behavior is born. Even if you only give in some of the time, it can teach your dog to be bossy. In fact, if you tell your dog “no” for her first few demands but then give in eventually, you are actually teaching her to be more persistent than if you give in every time. Dogs who are intermittently rewarded for demanding behavior are the ones who develop the most stamina, and they’re often the ones whose habits are hardest to break.

It’s up to you to teach your dog to have an “off” switch. When you practice this strategy, keep in mind it’s not about denying your dog attention, play, or food. He can have all those things. Rather, when it’s time for you to end the fun, it’s only fair to tell him a cue indicating you’re done. It’s actually much more humane to have an “off’ switch cue than to have nothing at all. Without a cue, your dog will continue asking for more. This leads to stress and frustration.

There are two aspects to address here. The first is a polite way your dog can ask for something, such as a toy. (Consider this a polite “on” switch.) The second aspect is to clearly tell your dog when you’ve finished interacting with him.

When your dog wants something from you, ask him to sit (or perform a similarly polite behavior) for it first. This could apply to:

  • treats,
  • starting a game of tug or fetch,
  • permission on the couch or bed,
  • getting the leash on, or
  • getting the door opened.

Practice the steps below. You’ll notice there is no “sit” cue. While there is nothing wrong with telling your dog to sit, most dog are perfectly capable of thinking to sit on their own. So let them think it through without giving the cue.

  1. Hold a toy out, in a position too high for your dog to reach. If your dog barks or jumps, ignore it. Stay still and quiet.
  2. Eventually he will get tired of trying to snatch the toy, and he’ll sit. The moment he sits, say “good dog!” and reward by starting the game.
  3. Repeat this every time he wants something, not just toys.

By being consistent with this rule, you’re giving your dog clear guidelines for how to say “please” when he wants something. If you give in occasionally, it will confuse your dog in the long run.

Now let’s teach your dog a cue that means, “I’m done interacting with you.” The example below is to end a play session, but you could use this for treats, training sessions, attention, or anything else your dog wants you to keep doing.

When you’re ready to stop playing the game with your dog, you’ll follow these steps.

  1. If you need to remove a toy from his mouth, ask for a “drop it” as explained here.
  2. Say “that’s all” and wave your hands side to side (or any other gesture to indicate you’re done playing, such as shrugging). This is the cue to mean you’re finished interacting.
  3. Turn away from your dog and ignore him until he’s given up. If he is barking at or jumping on you, you may have to leave the room.

Apply this to every situation in which your dog demands something from you. Once your dog realizes that “that’s all” means the fun is over, he’ll stop demanding. Having learned the cue, most dogs will immediately walk away to entertain themselves with a chewy, a toy, or a nap.

Apply “sit to say please” and “the ‘off’ switch” to as many scenarios as you can. This will ensure your pup is polite, even when he wants something.


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