Distraction Training - Part 2

The trained automatic response - herein lies our hope for curing selective deafness!


All dogs find it harder to be obedient when there are distractions around.  Dog distraction training is all about teaching a dog to be obedient no matter what is going on around him.


It helps I think to look at what we actually mean by obedience and how we expect to achieve this with our dog.


The obedience we expect from a dog is not the same as the obedience we expect between, for example, people.  What we mean by obedience in people is more complex…


If a child ‘obeys’ his parent, he is making a conscious decision to submit to that person’s will, to their authority.  He may think through the potential consequences before reacting, and that’s OK.


With dog training we are not aiming for a rational, well thought out decision. We are not preparing him for life as in independent being. We don’t expect him to make moral choices in years to come. We are always going to protect and control him.


So… what we want from a dog is an unthinking reaction to a cue, in all manner of situations.


Getting that reaction takes some time and effort and the finished product is an automatic response.


The obedient dog – an example

The dog, let’s call him Flint, who recalls smartly away from other dogs, might well be described as obedient.  However, it’s not the kind of ‘rational’ obedience that we expect from people.  It is simply that his owner has put the time and effort into training him to respond in a particular way, under those specific circumstances.


He has been specifically trained to recall reliably away from other dogs, (which is not always an easy thing to achieve!).


The disobedient dog – an example

If you put Flint in front of a bolting rabbit, or in a field of sheep, he may fail to recall entirely.  Many people would then describe Flint as being disobedient, whereas in fact, he was simply not trained to cope with that particular situation.


The trained automatic response - herein lies our hope for curing the selective deafness that sometimes afflicts our adolescent dog!


Always try to remember (no matter how frustrating it may seem!) dogs don’t choose to be disobedient. They are simply not that complex.


If you want your dog to come when you call him even when other dogs are within sight or sound of him, you’ll need to train specifically for this skill.


You cannot expect a dog that has learned to recall in an empty field, to continue to do so when a dog walker appears in the distance.  He might, and he might not.  The only way to be sure he does, is to train for it.


We need to deliberately set up situations where you can ensure that your dog responds to your cues, in the presence of the distractions that you want him to ignore.


This process of training amongst distractions is often called proofing and it’s achieved by creating artificial training scenarios where you personally have control over the level of the distraction and of the dog’s response to it.


This is not always easy (which is partly why not many people actually do it!), in fact it’s quite a lot of trouble, but it’s the only way to get results that you can rely on.


Good dog training programs focus on getting this right with limited distractions from the start and only building up the difficulty when your pup is ready.


In order to teach your dog to recall away from joggers, or to walk to heel around other dogs you need to train him in controlled situations around joggers or other dogs, where you set him up to win.


This is the essence of what we are trying to achieve in the Adolescent Essentials class.



Three key things to consider with distraction training:


As you start this process of proofing or distraction training, there are three important things to consider and they all interact with one another. Here they are:

• How aroused is my dog (his general level of emotion)

• How motivated is my dog

• How difficult is my request


If your dog is ignoring your cues think about why and about how you can make it easier for him to succeed.


For example, if you are trying to teach your dog to walk to heel past other dogs and he is leaping all over the place like a lunatic, he is not being disobedient.  He is simply too aroused to respond to your cues at this point.


Your dog’s arousal, his motivation and the difficulty of the task in hand are all under your control.


• You can reduce his excitement by moving him further away from the other dogs.

• You can increase the motivation you offer him for focusing on you and maintaining the heel position (e.g. use higher value rewards such as roast chicken or a sardine)

• You can ask the dog for a less challenging response (a hand touch for example, or simply to glance at your face)


Let’s take a closer look at each of these three points:


Reducing arousal or excitement levels


The best way to reduce the dog’s excitement level is usually to move him further away from the distraction.  This isn’t permanent, you won’t always have to pass other dogs with a twenty yard clearance but you need to find a starting point where your dog can respond to you.


Increasing motivation


Using higher value rewards may help you get past a challenging point in training. A sardine, a piece of warm roast chicken, his favourite ball, whatever your dog finds irresistible, use it.


Again, this isn’t permanent.  You won’t need to walk around with sardines in your pocket forever!


You are just making it easier to get that first step right, to get to a point where the dog can break his focus on the distraction and give it back to you.


Once your dog has learned to respond to you in more challenging situations, you’ll be able to use less messy rewards and to offer them less frequently


Making the task easier


Sometimes the best way for you to help your dogs gain skill at responding in a distracting situation is simply to ask the dog for an easier response.


This is especially important in situations where you cannot realistically get further away from the distraction or reduce it’s appeal.


Wait the dog out and reward something very simple. It could a glance or a look in your direction to begin with. It could progress to a hand touch, and then a sit or a few steps at heel.


Again, this isn’t permanent, it’s just another way of getting that first response on which can build.


Reduce duration / reward the dog more often


An important aspect to making the task easier is to ask for tasks with less duration. That one minute SIT can be reduced to three seconds in challenging situations.  You can build duration back up again once your dog is ’winning’ on a regular basis.


Shorter duration tasks enable you to reward the dog more frequently which also helps to keep him motivated to work with you.


Of course, at some point, we need to make tasks more difficult for our dogs in order to make progress with our training. Even experienced trainers sometimes find it difficult to know when to do this…


How to know when to make the task more difficult?

Use the PUSH/DROP/STICK rules.


Do five repetitions in a row of any exercise.

Based on how the dog performs on those five repetitions, you will do one of the following.

• Push on 5/5 – go on to the next level of difficulty (for example you could move closer to the other dog)

• Drop on 2/5 – go back to the previous level of difficulty (move further away from the other dog)

• Stick on 3 or 4/5– stay at the current level of difficulty (carry on in your current position)


Most good trainers use some form of this system, and many keep records or a rough count of the number of successful repetitions they do of a particular exercise.  It really does help you figure out when you are ready to move on.


You can adapt this for your own use of course, but the main thing is to have a system and not just to guess wildly whether or not your dog is making progress.  PUSH/DROP/STICK makes all your training more efficient and it’s especially important for distraction training.


Here’s a video I made with one of my dogs – Ash.  He is very distracted by food of all sorts! https://youtu.be/PWL4r6UeFsA


When you start to be successful in this sort of training at home you can start to use the environment to train.  Rather than the bowl of treats it could be another dog he wants to greet, or a person or a lamp post he wants to sniff.  When you train this way the dog learns that if he wants to greet that other dog or person he has to do a little something for you first.  This really builds reliability and your dogs ability to listen to you when he/she is out and about - happy days!