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Training for Distractions

Regardless of the goals you are wanting to achieve with your dog, you will come across a time where your previously responsive, calm and well trained dog suddenly seems like they have forgotten everything they have ever learned. Perhaps they still take treats and respond albeit slowly, or perhaps they act like they have never met you before.


You get frustrated because you know your dog can do all this at home, they are reliable at home, but suddenly when out on a walk, or even the dog park all manners and training seems to be forgotten.


Why does this occur?


Your dog is distracted. The environment they are in is either more interesting, scary, concerning or inviting.


At home they are used to what is there, they know what is going to happen. They know the couch because they most likely sleep on it. They know where their food bowl is. Home is a low distraction environment. They feel safe so they can let their guard down and are more willing to focus on you and their training.


Once you get outside there are new smells. Perhaps they are in their backyard. This is still familiar but there is a slight increase in the level of unpredictability. Perhaps you face a street so your dog will see people and other dogs walking past, maybe they don't like birds landing so they will chase them away. Your dog probably has a favourite sunny napping spot and spot they prefer to use as a toilet. The environment is still familiar but can be used to increase the level of environmental challenges for your dog training.


Once you leave the familiarity of your dogs territory, you increase the levels of distractions and unpredictability for your dog. Some don't let this phase them, they are confident with whatever may come, where as other maybe so unsure that the rustle of the leaves as a bird flies out of a bush spooks them.


The above shows how your dog may react to different environments or situations. For some dogs the green circle may go all the way to the distraction. For other dogs the red circle may be quite large. You need to work within your dogs limits. look for signs your dog have moved between colours.


Your goal when training for distractions is to expand on the green and reduce the red.


How to train with distractions

  1. Start in the lowest distraction environment possible

  2. Once your dog is proficient in the chosen exercise you change the environment to one that is slightly more distracting

  3. Repeat steps 1 & 2 until you have a dog that is willing to work anywhere regardless of the environment.

When starting to train your dog you want to work in an environment that has the least amount of distraction as possible. You start teaching a new behaviour such as sit in your living room, or your backyard and once the behaviour is solid ie, your dog responds quickly, without hesitation and with 1 cue, you increase the challenge by moving to a more distracting environment.


The main goal is to ensure your dog really understands what you are asking for before you bump up the challenge in the environment.


Dealing with unexpected distractions

Lets say you have a dog reactive dog. You are managing the environment the best you can. You have found a location to walk that is very rarely used by anyone else, or perhaps you are walking at a time where very few other do, such as early in the morning (kudos to you!). Things are going well, your dog is relaxed and enjoying the smells, then around the corner you see someone walking another dog, suddenly your environment for your dog has changed from green to possibly orange or red.


Unfortunately no matter how much we try to manage things for our dogs things happen, Maybe someone else has found our walking spot, maybe you have no other choice but to walk when its busy, maybe you are attending our club training grounds and know that during a training session there will be a train go past, a plane fly over, ambulance racing over the overpass at the end of the grounds and other dogs around (it all happens every Tuesday night!). How you react will determine how successful the experience is for your dog.


Lets say you are out walking your dog in a quiet area and around the corner another dog and handler has started to approach.


Step 1. Don't Panic

Your reaction will go down the lead to your dog and will pick up on it and react.You may start to stress because in the past your dog has been fearful, or shown signs of aggression, your dog will then start to realise there is something coming they need to worry about and possibly deal with. Always remain calm and in control.


Step 2. Be Prepared

Because you have been focusing on the environment as you walk your dog, you spotted the potential distraction before your dog. You knew this might be possible so you bought along some of your dogs favourite treats as every time you leave the house, it is a training opportunity. You call your dog to you before they can spot the approaching dog and you reward them for it.


Step 3: Have some tricks handy

As the dog starts to get closer it is going to be harder to not let your dog see them approach. There are several ways you can use this as a training session.

  1. If your dog is able to, cue your dog to go into heel and continue to walk past the approaching dog. Ensure you are between your dog and the approaching dog. This can give the dog a sense of security as you are in the middle, reward regularly as your dog focuses on you and not the approaching dog

  2. If your dog is unable to walk past, then stop and move to the side of the path creating as much space as possible to get as close to your dogs green zone. Ask your dog to focus on you by providing rapid fire treats. This is a quick succession of treats in one go, call your dogs name and reward and continue to reward for as long as they are looking at you while the other dog and handler has pass.

  3. If your dog is that upset they are not able to take treats, continue to create as much space as possible between you and the approaching dog. Remain calm and don't let your dog focus on the approaching dog. This can be achieved by continuously changing direction. Should the other person stop and offer assistance, ask them kindly to continue on as it will be the best thing to do in the situation.

If your dog happens to fall into category 3 above, please don't despair. This can be rectified by slowly exposing your dog to other dogs by working within their green and yellow zones above. For some, the red zone may be up to 20m, if that's the case, that's what you work with.


We have had many successes with reactive dogs at our club, however for some dogs, the group environment is just too much to start. We are always happy to discuss the options available and if needed we have a network of private trainers we can refer to.




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