• Erika Marshall, CPDK-KA, KPA-CTP

Spray Bottles, Shaker Cans & Yelling, Oh My!

I read many posts where people use a spray bottle to get their pup to stop doing something they don't like..... jumping, chewing, barking, growling....or they use a shaker can (a coffee can or soda bottle filled with coins that rattles when shaken or tossed) to also interrupt unwanted behaviors, and some folks go old school and just holler at the top of their lungs - often using the pup's name - to interrupt the behavior.

So what's wrong with this approach?

All three methods function, at least initially, by exploiting the startle response.

The startle response is "a largely unconscious defensive response to sudden or threatening stimuli, such as sudden noise or sharp movement, and is associated with negative affect" 1. Even tiny puppies and babies have a well developed startle response, though it may be limited to blinking or flinching. The startle response has been critical for survival for millions of years, organisms that didn't respond to loud sudden noises or movement ran the risk of getting hurt - falling trees, lighting strikes, for example - or eaten up - charging predators or sudden diving birds, for example.

So what's wrong with exploiting startle ? Two things.

First, habituation. The first time a soldier fires a gun, he may startle in response to the "bang", but after working on target practice, he gets used to the sound, and no longer startles when a gun goes off 2.

Second, consistent activation of the startle response can have detrimental mental effects, such as phobias, non-specific fears, anxiety, and lack of confidence 3 . Why would we want to risk any of these possible side effects?

Spray Bottles:

So Henrietta the pup is happily chewing on a tasty, smelly, leather shoe and her owner approaches and Henrietta is sprayed in the face with a stream of water. Henrietta is surprised, and she is discomforted. She doesn't like the water spray in her face, she moves away from the spray and also from the shoe. The owner declares success! Spaying Henrietta got her to stop chewing the shoe, and most likely not resume because the spray is now associated with chewing the shoe. But it also may be associated with the approach of the owner when Henrietta is enjoying a chew of something she likes.

Next time Henrietta is chewing on something fun, and the owner approaches, Henrietta worries that something unpleasant is going to happen, and she growls to express her concern. The owner sprays her again. Henrietta has now learned that the approach of her owner predicts something unpleasant may happen, especially if Henrietta has something good. We are rapidly on our way to building a contentious relationship between Henrietta, the stuff she likes, and her owner's approach. Growling, hiding, grabbing and running, and guarding all can be consequences of Henrietta having learned that when she has something she likes, bad things may happen when her owner approaches her.

Couple of other issues with the spray bottle. For some dogs, they enjoy the spray after the first few startle events. For other dogs that learn to dislike it to the extent that all that is required is a show of the bottle, there is no information as to what the dog SHOULD do, and unless we intend to carry a spray bottle with us everywhere, without our bottle we are disarmed. We have taught the dog very little except that a spray bottle in our hand means something unpleasant might happen.

Shaker cans:

A shaker can, or rattle bottle is used to interrupt behavior. Henrietta is counter surfing, jumping up and trying to get food off the kitchen counter. The owner tosses the shaker can near her, and the clattering rattle startles Henrietta so she stops jumping for the food on the counter and runs from the kitchen. The owner declares success! Tossing the shaker can got Henrietta to stop counter surfing. The rattling sound startled Henrietta. But in time she may habituate to the shaker can (like the soldier habituates to gun fire). Which means it will decrease in effectiveness. This is when many owners start tossing the can closer and closer to the dog, or even at the dog, as their tool loses its ability to get the desired response and they become frustrated. She could also, as with the spray bottle, come to negatively associate the shaker can with her owner, or other events that happen in close proximity. And again, do we want to carry a shaker can with us to the park? In the car? Without our can, we are disarmed. We have taught Henrietta very little except that the shaker can is unpleasant.

Yelling: Yelling comes with all the issues of startle; the dog may get used to it (habituation) and so it becomes less effective in stopping behavior. As a result we either yell louder, or throw something, or add a kick or otherwise escalate out of frustration. Yelling can also rob a dog of confidence, or introduce phobias or fears, this time directly tied to the owner, as the person is the source of the yelling.

Additionally, when yelling is paired with the dog's name, as in "HENRIETTA STOP THAT YOU BAD DOG", the dog's name becomes a signal that something bad is occurring, rather than the response we want from our dog (and our friends, spouses and kids as well!) when we say their name - we want them to orient to us, to look at us. If the dog learns her name means "trouble", we are unlikely to get her to look at us when we call her name. This becomes a real problem when we want to use the dog's name in a recall, or to get the dog's attention to ask for a behavior.

Ok, if you're convinced then you now want to know:

"So what DO I do when Henrietta's chewing a shoe, or counter surfing or otherwise doing something I don't want" ?

Good question, and this gets to the very heart of positive training. When our dog is doing something we don't want, we teach them to do something we DO WANT instead. For example, dog is jumping? Reward the dog (easiest with food treats) ONLY when the dog is sitting, in a down position or has all four feet on the floor.

While we are teaching the behaviors we want, we manage the environment so that Henrietta can not practice bad or dangerous behavior...we put all shoes away behind closed doors, we put up a baby gate so Henrietta can't get to the kitchen counters. Then we teach Henrietta a "go to place" where she runs and lays down on her bed when we're cooking, or we teach "trade" where Henrietta gives us a shoe in exchange for her toy.

When we teach behaviors we want, we can take them with us anywhere we go. The dog in the park can sit rather than jump when we greet a friend, the dog that finds a napkin in the back seat of the car can trade the napkin for a treat.

When we train, when we teach, we free ourselves of negative tools and open ourselves and our dogs up to a world of behaviors that make our lives richer and more fun!

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