Training my first service dog, Jersey, to retrieve was a challenge. (This was in 1998, before I knew about clicker training, too!) She had no natural interest in toys or fetch. It took a long time, lots of praise and repetition, and lots and lots of food rewards to get her retrieving. But once she had it, she seemed unstoppable. She would eagerly pick up all sorts of things around the house — items I dropped, laundry from the basket, the slippers I pointed to.
Then we went to the grocery store, and though she would sit, down, and stay, she would not retrieve anything. Not for love nor money. What happened?
It’s the lament of the dog owner and dog trainer.
It happens to everyone: The puppy owner who brings her puppy to its first class. The service dog owner trainer who takes her dog out for a public access training session. Even professional trainers who take their dog out for a demonstration (like I’ll be doing this weekend*).
The behavior that seemed so fluent at home falls apart completely in new surroundings. We all say the same thing: “What happened? She does it perfectly at home!”
Has some mysterious science-fictionesque force swept in and emptied my dog’s brain of everything I thought she knew?
Nope. It can be explained. The dreaded “D”s have foiled our best efforts: Distraction, duration, and distance.
Dogs are contextual learners.
They pay attention to lots of little details we may not notice. The good news is, there is a way to train that makes your dog’s behavior stronger. I call it “training in 3-D.”
Training in 3-D: Distraction, Duration & Distance
Dog and DIFFICULTY are both spelled with “D”…
When you train with your dog, pay attention to the “D”s that might creep into your lessons:
- Distraction (Difference): What else is competing for your dog’s attention? What’s DIFFERENT? Sounds, movements, sights, smells grab dogs’ attention. Facing a different direction or training in a different room can be distracting. Does “sit” mean the same thing when you face away? When you’re lying down? When you’re in the bathroom? Newness is distracting. Any new space (such as obedience class) is very distracting. This is one reason why service dog partners ask the general public not to pet, talk to, or otherwise distract their service dogs.
- Duration: How long does the dog have to perform the behavior? Many dogs learn to pop up out of the sit after one second. Teaching them to stay in a sit for three minutes is a separate challenge. Walking at heel for five paces versus 30 feet is much harder.
- Distance has two components: How far are you from your dog? How far is your dog from the goal? Most dogs will sit if they are right in front of you but won’t know what “sit” means if they’re across the street. Likewise, your dog may run into her crate when you’re right next to it, but look blank at the same cue from the doorway.
May D-Force Be WITH YOU….
Instead of fighting against the immovable force of the 3-Ds, work WITH the force. Great training strategically incorporates elements of difficult.
Follow these rules:
- Build on success. Your dog must be successful 80% of the time (4 out of 5 times) before you add difficulty. i.e., your dog must sit every time you say “sit” before starting sit-stay.
- Change ONE thing at a time. If you add distraction, keep distance and duration the same. Be clear and consistent. Decide which D you’re rewarding before your session.
- Reduce expectations for other areas of performance. If you’re working on “distraction” and your dog sits slowly or sloppily but does it despite the marching band, reward that!
- Build slowly: Training duration, increase by seconds, not minutes. With distance, work in inches, not yards. With distraction, start with very tiny movements, soft sounds, etc.
- When you increase one area of difficulty, make everything else easier and more rewarding. If your dog is failing, either your reinforcement is not valuable enough, the difficulty is too high, or both. Make the pay-off big and the challenge small.
- Focus on distraction first. Distractions are everywhere. When your dog can work around distraction, add duration, then distance. Then you can switch between each one.
- Randomly, make things easier. After doing five long downs, do one short one. After adding six feet of distance, throw in a two-inch trial. If everything just gets harder and harder, your dog may get discouraged. Offering occasional “easy wins” keeps your dog engaged.
Don’t let Difficulty — the Darth Vader of dog training — get you down!
Incorporate the “Ds” into your training. Train diligently. With patience and consistency, you can defeat the Ds, and do anything. Every door will be open. No deed undoable. Vive la Difference!
Have you run into the force-field of the Ds?
What about you? Have you ever experienced the “but he knows it at home” phenomenon? Tel your story in the comments!
*This Saturday, March 5 at 10 AM in South Deerfield, I’ll be demonstrating the effect of unexpected distractions on a working service dog. Click here for more information on this free workshop.