Dog Training Communication – Diverters and Disrupters

An important key to successful training is to identify what the dog is attempting to accomplish by its behavioral efforts.

A dog working hard to get food may not find the opportunity to play ball to be an adequate substitute-ball play is irrelevant to the control-prediction expectancies at work.

Similarly, giving the dog a biscuit when it wants to play fetch may not represent a reinforcing event, although it may momentarily dampen or replace the dog’s interest in chasing the ball.

What are diverters and disrupters?

Presenting a ball to a dog who is momentarily interested in food represents a special kind of surprise-a diverter.

Unlike a surprise, a diverter does not function as a reinforcer, even though it may become a reinforcer (conditioned) as the dog makes efforts to control its occurrence.

Similarly, behavior efforts can be disrupted by the presentation of special startling events called disrupters (e.g., a burst of air). The disrupter is presented independently of the dog’s ability to control or predict it (could startle and/or surprise) and is irrelevant to the control-prediction expectancies regulating the behavior occurring at the moment of presentation.

[Control expectancies are behavior reinforced sufficiently in the past that the subject has formed preconceived notions that the same outcome will occur based on their established behavior. This outcome expectancy continues until that time the subject forms new expectancies based on changes in reinforcement or environmental changes]

The disrupting event is not punishment because the dog is not engaged in behavioral efforts aimed at avoiding or escaping its occurrence. The event serves only to momentarily disrupt behavior.

Since there is no effort to control the presentation of diverters or disrupters in advance of their occurrence, such events result in neither punishment nor reinforcement. Their efforts are primarily diversionary and disruptive.

How are they used and why?

Both diverters and disrupters are used to initiate novel patterns of behavior (change behavior) that are subsequently brought under the influence of new control-prediction expectancies (behavior change based on new reinforcement values and more desirable behavior).

Diverters and disrupters are means for initiating new behavior without first punishing or extinguishing already established behavior.

Both diverters and disrupters are marking events that set the stage for establishing a new set of control-prediction expectancies (a more desirable behavior) with which to organize new behavior.

Function and Establishing Operations

Another way of appreciating the function of diverters and disrupters is in terms of attractive and aversive establishing operations. Offering a ball to the dog in the above example motivationally diverts the dog from its appetitive interests and raises the likelihood that it will exhibit behavior aimed at controlling the ball.

As this transition occurs, the contingent presentation or omission of the ball can then function as a reinforcer or punisher. [the ball is used to reinforce desirable behavior and/or is removed to stop undesirable behavior. The ball becomes a conditioned reinforcer]

Noncontingent reinforcement and punishment function in a similar way. For example, giving the dog noncontingent food during greetings turns its attention away from controlling social reinforcers to the possibility of controlling appetitive reinforcers.

[noncontingent means the food does not yet predict anything, it’s not paired with a behavior and outcome, it’s only being used, if effective to grab the dogs attention so handler can begin to teach/reinforce more desirable behavior]

The initial presentation of food in such situations function as a diverting establishing operation, making it more likely that the dog will emit behavior aimed at controlling the food presentations (e.g., sitting instead of jumping up), thereby making reinforcement or punishment possible through the contingent delivery or omission of the food reward.

[the food diverts the dogs attention, away from its previous focus (undesirable behavior) the same as the ball, the food has the potential to become a conditioned reinforcer that can be given or taken away depending on the dogs responses]

Diverting and disrupting establishing operations play important roles in the management of a wide variety of behavior problems.


The foregoing methods of analysis and behavior modification are crucial for effective problem solving and routine training efforts.

Such methods provide the trainer/behaviorist with a flexible and creative repertoire of alternatives to reactive force and punishment.

Dogs trained with behavioral methods take to learning much more actively and exhibit a confidence and optimism that dogs trained with force alone never exhibit.

The ideal outcome of behavior modification is the development of a system of communication between owner and dog based on a shared interface of understood expectancies, mutually cooperative and constructive meditational behaviors, and a shared set of common needs served by such interaction.

Proper training establishes a foundation of interactive harmony based on realistic boundaries and cooperative exchange.


Steven Lindsay 2000.  Handbook of Applied Dog Behavior and Training Volume One Adaptation and Learning


Joyce D. Kesling, CDBC, Professional Trainer

Responsible Dog and Cat

Training Behavior Solutions, LLC

Sarasota, FL 34243