Distraction Training - Part 1

The two treat method

Distraction training is a critical step lots of folks miss in their training but not us!


A key part of the Adolescent class is taking the basic behaviours we’ve established well at home and making sure our young dogs will respond away from home, without food in our hands and under distraction.


As always we want to do this systematically to help introduce our dog to working through distractions and some new elements in their training.


At the end of this course if you follow the distraction training tasks week by week you should be thinking to yourself – wow!  I’m actually starting to feel like I have a well trained dog! :-)


Always remember, ‘distraction training’ is not about teaching the basic behaviours.  If you can’t get your dog to sit, down, stay, come or walk nicely on a lead when conditions are ideal then go back a few steps and work on that at home then come back to these instructions when you’re ready.


How to Tell If You’re Ready For Distraction Training


If you’re not sure if a behaviour you’ve trained is ready for distraction training then take this simple test:

  • Take your dog to your most familiar training area and with food in your hand ask your dog to perform the behaviour.  Your dog should respond promptly on the first or second request.  

If so, that’s great!  You’re ready to get started and use this behaviour with distractions present.


However, if your dog wandered around first or needed many cues you have a basic training problem and you need to go back and retrain that behaviour.


Golden Rule: Do not use a behaviour in distraction training if your dog cannot perform it easily and reliably under pristine conditions and while you’re holding food.


Take this test for each behaviour that you would like to use in your distraction training (I suggest the basic behaviours: sit, down, stay, come, walk nicely but you can include others you’ve trained too).  You can test all of your dog’s behaviours now, or you can test each behaviour as you need it.




Now it’s time to choose a suitable distraction for your training this week.  A distraction is something (anything!) that distracts your dog from performing for you and that you can control access to.  It will be individual to your dog so it’s good to make a list of things your pup finds distracting and rank them in order.  For example, my dobie x project boy Ash is moderately distracted by food and highly distracted by other dogs and toys, his very top distraction is a blue ball-chucker.  Presently he can’t do anything in its presence except stare at it!


Examples of common distractions might include:


• Low-level distraction: Familiar person walking by, crumbs on the counter, a familiar dog in the room, or mild movement outside the window.


• Mid-level distraction: Attractive food on the counter out of reach, familiar dog or person moving quickly through the training area or someone walking outside the window.


• High-level distraction: Squirrel running through the trees, large amounts of steaming meat on the counter, any food on the ground, or a strange person entering the training area.


All dog’s are individuals so your first task this week is to think about and figure out what your dog finds distracting.  Some dogs might find a ball nearby to be riveting, others might not care less!


Before you start this homework, pick two things that you think your dog will find interesting, but that are relatively low value.  One should be slightly higher value than the other.  For example, a slice of bread on the counter might be a perfect first distraction.  The second piece of food will be used to reward your dog when he cooperates, so it should be something your dog likes more than bread.


Once you’ve chosen both a distraction and a reward you’re ready to start training.


The ‘Two-Treat’ Method  


When your dog is successful, you’re going to reward your dog with the ‘two-treat’ method.

• Have two treats in your hand

• Give your dog one treat from your hand while you praise enthusiastically

• Back up so that you end up further away from the distraction so that your dog is likely to turn back to you instead of heading to the distraction

• Give him the second treat when he is back with you again.


Key Point To Remember

• Your reward should always be higher value than your distraction


What if your dog fails?


First of all, don’t worry - failure is a natural part of learning.  Just keep calm and neutral and follow this procedure:

• Go to the distraction, pick it up and admire it together

• Put it back where it was

• Go to the same place you were before and ask your dog for the behaviour again

• If your dog fails again, make the task easier.

• For example, you might stand closer to your dog, or move the distraction a bit further away.  Or, if you asked for a stay, you might change your duration from five seconds to three seconds, you get the idea.


If your dog fails three times in a row, stop.  The task is too hard for your dog.  You must go back to the previous step  or find a way to make it easier.  Ask yourself these questions:

• Did you use a low enough value of distraction?

• Are you using a higher value reward?

• Does your dog KNOW that you have a higher value reward?

• Are you SURE your dog knows the base behaviour in that environment when no distraction is present?  If your dog doesn’t really know the cue then he won’t be able to succeed.


How Long to Spend Training This?

In each training session focus on one behaviour only for no more than five minutes.  If you’d like to work on another behaviour, do so in a separate training session, i.e. 10 minutes of training in total.  


Each task should be repeated until your dog is successful at least 80% of the time.  In addition, your dog should be bright and eager to train.  If he’s not having fun then the training won’t be successful – you know what teenagers are like!


Let’s get cracking with this then:


Lesson 1: Easy Distraction, Easy Behaviour

Use a low value distraction for this lesson!



1. Bring your dog into the training area

2. While your dog is watching, place the distraction out of your dog’s reach but where he can see it.  Your dog needs to be well aware of the distraction so don’t hide it!

3. Hold two treats in your hand

4. Standing close to your dog, cue a behaviour he knows like a ‘sit’.

5. If your dog responds correctly, reward using the two-treat method.

6. If your dog fails, admire the distraction together, then try again.

7. Repeat no more than 10 times or 5 minutes, whichever is greater.

Push on to Lesson 2 when your dog is successful at least 80% of the time.


Lesson 2: Easy Distraction, Different Behaviour

This lesson is a repeat of Lesson 1.  The only difference is that you’ll be working on a different behaviour.  



1. Bring your dog into the training area

2. Place the distraction out of your dog’s reach

3. Hold two treats in your hand

4. Request a different behaviour.  If you’ve been working on ‘sit’, then maybe do a ‘down’ or a few seconds of loose lead walking, or maybe a recall.  If you do a recall then make a point of standing so that your dog is travelling away from the distraction rather than heading towards it so you can be sure your dog is coming to you as opposed to heading to the counter.

5. Reward success using the two-treat method.

6. If your dog fails, admire the distraction together, then try again.

7. Repeat no more than 10 times or 5 minutes, whichever is greater.


Your goal for this week if you can is to work through to Lesson 2 above with all the different base behaviours (sit, down, stay, come, walk nicely) aiming for at least 80% success.