Features August 2017 Issue

Install an “Off Switch” on Playtime

I adopted my first Australian Kelpie in the mid-1980s. This is a breed I cheerfully describe as “Border Collies on uppers” – and I quickly realized that my ball-crazy Keli was going to drive me crazy if I didn’t teach her an “off switch” cue.

I used her favorite toy – a tennis ball – to teach her that “All done!” meant there was absolutely no point in continuing to ask me to throw the ball. This then translated easily to other situations where I needed to tell her that we were done with whatever activity we had been engaged in – whether it was play, training, or casual interactions.

Here’s how you can install an off switch in your own dog:

1. Start with a long play session – long enough that it’s reasonable to expect that your dog will be able to end the game and relax.

With Keli, sometimes tossing the ball in the yard for a while was enough; sometimes it took climbing to the top of a steep hill and tossing the ball down the hill for her to fetch – over and over and over again.

The goal is to have him more or less ready to quit on his own – at least when you start teaching “All done!”

dog with toy

When a dog is this cute, it’s hard to resist his attempts to get you to play – at least, until you’ve had to change your clothes twice before going to work, as he slimed your slacks or muddied your Manolo Blahnik’s with a dirt- and slobber-encrusted ball he wanted you to throw. But you must resist once you’ve given the “All done!” cue. If you give in after you’ve given your cue, you are in for a lot more of the same.

2. Give your “All done!” cue, and put the toy somewhere your dog can no longer see it – in a cupboard or in a backpack – and ignore any of your dog’s efforts to re-engage with the toy.

3. Notify any other humans in the vicinity to also ignore your dog’s attempts to get them to play.

NOTE: Training humans to ignore your dog’s attempts to get them to play fetch might be the hardest part of this! You have to be very assertive with them! Alternatively, you can just leash your dog and move away from the most insistent dog lovers.

4. Watch your dog, so you notice and can reinforce him for any appropriate behavior that is not attention-seeking. If your dog stops staring at you and, instead, retreats to his bed, go to him and praise and pet him calmly (assuming he likes petting).

5. Make sure to give your dog plenty of opportunities to engage in ball-chasing and other favorite activities daily. You don’t want your dog to feel deprived after you tell him that you are done for the moment, but confident that he will have another opportunity later.

6. Generalize your “All done!” cue by using it in other training situations and recreational activities, so that your dog will realize that the cue means the end of whatever he is doing when he hears it. For example, you can use the cue when you’ve allowed your dog-who-loves-to-lick to kiss your face several times and then you’ve had enough.

Herding dog trainers commonly use “That’ll do” as a “off switch” cue – and the expression was popularized by the movie “Babe.” (Remember? It’s when the talented swine was told: “That’ll do, Pig!”)

You can, of course, use whatever cue you want. But stick with it! Trust me, you will find it well worth the time and effort it takes to teach your persistent dog that enough is enough when you say it is.

Comments (3)

Great stuff! I would add to #5 to be very aware of your dog's behavior before initiating a favorite game, as you will be reinforcing it. When dog is relaxed and calm is a good time to invite them to the game.

Posted by: MeToo | August 20, 2017 12:30 PM    Report this comment

I have 2 adorable Shih Tzu Puppies sold to me by a breeder when they were far too young compared to all in the past - 6 weeks old. They are now 6 months old. I love them to death, and only want / do the best for them. They see the vet regularly, have now had their operations, etc., and the vet returns all calls which have been many at one point. HOWEVER, the little boy is loving, wants to be and is held, will cuddle on my lap, will run to me worried if I even cough, runs to me (like a baby running to Mama) if he gets choked ,,,, is precious, but at night, he acts like ADD on METH. I don't know what to do, and have had Shih Tzus all my long life - nothing like this. Unlike his sister with beautiful big eyes (both have green-gold eyes as opposed to brown eyes all my others have had), he has really pretty tiny eyes that are so cool. Where his sister will look at me and want to give me a kiss, Sammy will look at me for a minute with great focus, and quick jerk jump up to BITE my nose. I am forever avoiding whiplash all night. This is nonstop all night until bedtime (but after plenty of playtime, so they should be tired). At 7 weeks old, I looked over to see him proudly sitting on a high bed. He has no fear of jumping, plowing through all my boxes I am packing for a move, etc. They both still chew on everything in the house, but even teething is not the reason for his actions. If I hold him on my lap when he is wild, he'll go like on a treadmill with his feet still moving wildly to jump. No matter what I do to try to calm him down (even a lg. crate doesn't work as he comes out ready to go full force), he will twist and writhe as though he has no spine (which scares me even that he could snap his own neck). I don't want to medicate him at all, and it has never been suggested. My vet I trust 100% says he is just an active little boy. Any suggestions? Thanks!

Posted by: sharonrhea | August 20, 2017 11:39 AM    Report this comment

Sadly this comment is not related to your excellent article, but I once had a Kelpie who was an accidental mother/son breeding. He was charming, and my vet thought that he was a dead ringer for the original primeval dog. The coolest behavior he ever displayed was once when we were hiking and he got separated from me and the other 3 dogs. Although he was only about 60 feet away, trees and brush obscured us. He began howling, just like a wolf! So I immediately recovered my sweet Colin.
He was the mellowest of the 4 pups and was not "a border collie on steroids", but two of his litter mates were pretty wild. Seeing his parents, Cash and Chloe, herd the owner's Brown Swiss made me fall in love with the breed.

Posted by: hilfri | August 20, 2017 10:48 AM    Report this comment

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