Training a dog to work well around distractions is often the greatest challenge. For service dogs, working well around distractions is critical for public access training, but all dogs are susceptible to distraction. Distractions may include people, squirrels, other dogs, bicycles or cars, jackhammers, or any unexpected sound, sight, or smell. What is distracting to one dog may not be to another.
Dog’s responses may vary from barking and lunging, to freezing and staring, to jumping with joy. We may not even realize our dog is distracted until they seem to ignore us when we tell them to do something they know how to do, perhaps sniffing the ground and ignoring their favorite treat.
Good training requires “proofing” a dog’s skills by practicing them around distractions until the behavior is reliable no matter what else is happening. However, sometimes a distraction occurs unexpectedly — on a walk, during a training session, or just in the course of everyday life. Our dog’s behavior may seem to fall apart. This is normal. The key to turning an unpleasant surprise into a valuable training opportunity is to adapt your response to your dog’s reaction to the distraction….
- It’s best to end your training session while your dog is doing great! It’s human to want to keep going when the dog is doing well. But this inevitably results in pushing the dog to failure. Keep it short and sweet. You win five gold stars if you quit while your dog is doing well (BEFORE your dog fails)!
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Text description of the flowchart graphic:
Text headline: Responding to Distractions: What should you do? It depends on what your dog does.”
Purple pentagon “Distraction!” Arrow leads to black box with large print, “Is my dog acting like a creature who can THINK?” Three arrows lead from this box: Yes (on left), Somewhat (in the middle), and No (on the right).
“Yes” leads to three green boxes with a blue cloud above them. The cloud says, “UNDER threshold! You’re on Cloud 9! Train for best results.” The three green “yes” boxes are 1. Makes eye contact? Relaxed body? Happy to take treats? Responds to cues? 2. Cue reliable behavior (e.g., “touch”) and reinforce heavily for each correct response. 3. Slowly move toward the distraction, reinforcing heavily for focus. End quickly while successful!
“No” leads to three three boxes with a red “stop sign” shape above them. The red sign says, “Stop! Dog is over threshold! Give dog SPACE to think.” The three “No” boxes are a rose-colored box, “Staring? Barking? Lunging? Pulling? Growling?” This points to a pink box, “TAKE COVER. Move AWAY, use barriers, or give dog easy alternate focus.” This points to a yellow box, “Use ‘Look at That’ game with high rate of reinforcement to change your dog’s emotional response to distraction until…” An arrow from this box leads to the green “Makes eye contact?” box.
The “Somewhat” arrow in the middle leads to a yellow box, “Gulps, snatches at or ignores treats. Responds to cues slowly or only when repeated. Trouble making eye contact.” This leads to another yellow arrow-shaped box (pointing right) that says, “Caution: Dog is right at threshold of ability to think.” This box has an arrow that goes to the pink “TAKE COVER” box.
At the bottom of the graphic is “Copyright Sharon Wachsler 2016 ~ At Your Service Dog Training ~ atyourservicedogtraining.com.”