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Wednesday, 18 June 2014 00:00

The dogma of Distraction Training

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"My dog is perfect inside the house, but forgets everything and pays no attention to me outside!"

Have you ever found yourself saying this or can you relate to this statement? Every dog owner has felt frustration with their dog at one time or another due to their dog's short attention span. A common mistake that dog owners make while training their dogs is not properly proofing for distractions. We expect that once our dog knows a skill, they should be able to understand how to do the skill in any environment and/or situation. A common example would be when a dog does well at recall from the backyard to inside the house. Then the owner takes this right to the off-leash park and tries to call the dog to come out of play with another dog. The dog cannot handle this level of difficulty and will most often fail at this task.

This is where distraction training becomes a critical part of a training program for our dogs. To gain reliability and have success out in the real world, we need to introduce distractions and condition our dog on how to respond in a variety of situations and environments. We should start indoors in a quiet environment and then slowly begin to add in distractions. We often encourage people to compare the distraction training process to learning a new sport. For example, let's say someone has just learned to jump off a diving board for the first time. If we compare this to what we do to our dogs, we would then immediately expect them to begin performing intricate dives off the highest board.

We need to have a good understanding of distraction training to make faster progress at reliably teaching our dogs new skills. As well, after a few sessions of working on something over our dogs head, both we and the dogs will get discouraged. So distraction training helps to make the whole process more enjoyable for both us and our dogs. By taking the time to properly plan and asking your dog to perform in circumstances that are gradually more and more difficult, you will be leading them to extremely reliable performances in the future.

Below is a sample list of the levels of distractions (varies with each dog).

Low:

  • At home with no one around.
  • In the backyard at a quiet time (no one in sight, no dogs barking, no squirrels, etc).
  • In the classroom, with no other dogs in the room.

Moderate:

  • In the house with other family members around.
  • In the front yard with people walking by.
  • On the sidewalk while walking towards a dog that is a fair distance away.
  • Could also be out on a walk with a familiar dog in view.

Difficult:

  • In the backyard with a squirrel in view.
  • In the front yard with people your dog loves walking by.
  • In the house with family members trying to distract your dog with food.
  • Decreasing the distance out on a walk with another dog in view.
  • In a busy parking lot.
  • In the classroom with other dogs.

Intense:

  • At a park with lots of people around.
  • At the vet clinic.
  • In the house with family members playing with your dog's favourite toy.
  • Further decreasing the distance on a walk with another dog in view.
  • During play with a dog.

Experiment with these lists and develop one that provides a scale for your dog. Get out and practice! If your dog does not respond to you right away, remember that it is most likely that they are not being disobedient but rather they are just too distracted and the skill level is too high. Try to determine how to make the situation less difficult for them and remember that it is your job to set your dog up for success!

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Megan’s Musings are by Megan Armstrong, Owner/Operator of dogma

Megan became one of Calgary's only Certified Pet Dog Trainers (CPDT-KA) in 2005. The CPDT designation means her programs are based on humane training practices and the latest scientific knowledge about dog training. In other words, Megan's dog training expertise is grounded in a thorough, extensive education and examination process. 

View Megan's bio