Expert Service Dog Training for Life-Changing Results

Focus Around Distractions! 5 Tips for Service Dog Training around Dogs & People

Looking at the back of a woman with a white hoodie and black leggings walking her yellow lab through a hardware store

Does your service dog lose all focus around other dogs, friendly strangers, moving things, new environments, or interesting smells?

Does she suddenly act like she doesn’t know what “sit” means — even though she does it perfectly at home?

Does he stop paying attention to you at all, even though he knows you have lots of great treats?

Never fear! There’s nothing wrong with your dog. Training your service-dog-in-training (SDiT) to focus around distraction is the hardest part of public access service dog training. But it CAN be done! Here are five quick tips to help you defeat distractions with your SDiT.

For more help, attend a workshop or take a class. (Scholarships and discounts are available to allow low-income disabled handlers and disabled BIPOC handlers. Contact us if this applies to you.)

1. Adjust Your Expectations

We all carry numerous beliefs, expectations, and emotions into our training with our dogs. This is natural! This is true of all dog owners, but the stakes are especially high if you’re training your own service dog. The pressure to have it all go perfectly every time can weigh heavily on us and on our dogs.

Sometimes, this pressure leads to unrealistic expectations, which can lead us to bring our dogs into situations that are simply above their skill level.

Do you ever find yourself thinking one or more of these thoughts while training your service dog?

  • He shouldn’t be distracted by this! (We’ve done this before. He wasn’t distracted last time. This situation is not that difficult. We’ve been here before!)
  • I should be more interesting than this distraction. I should be the center of my dog’s universe.
  • But she already knows this…! She did this beautifully last week/yesterday/this morning!
  • We should be further along by now. The other dogs in class/on the street/in his litter are more advanced. What’s wrong with my dog? 
  • I must be doing something wrong. I’m failing as a trainer/handler/owner.

If so, you are not alone! AND, your dog will make better progress (and you will be less stressed out) if you recognize that your dog simply is where they are in training. One of our mottos is “Train the dog that shows up.” This means, work with the dog in front of you. Not the one you were hoping for or expecting or that you had this morning or last. Meet your dog at her level.

Dark grey T-Shirt with the words TRAIN THE DOG THAT SHOWS UP! alongside a dog logo
It’s so important to remember this motto, we put it on our T-shirts

2. Use Management (Triage) When the Situation is Too Hard

“Well,” you may be thinking, “training my dog at their level sounds good, but HOW do I actually DO that when my dog is losing its mind?”

If the situation is much too difficult, and your dog is leaping around, barking, lunging, or can’t even follow a cue to look at you, you might need to switch to management. Management strategies get you and your dog through the situation without causing harm — physical, behavioral, or training.

Preventing physical harm might mean avoiding an altercation between your dog and another dog or not jerking your dog, damaging its windpipe.

Preventing behavioral harm means that your dog does not get scared or overwhelmed, which could lead to a negative emotional association with the situation.

Preventing training harm means your dog does not practice bad habits (such as pulling, jumping, barking, etc.), which you don’t want her to learn.

Management strategies can include:

  • Use a treat to lure your dog far away from the distraction
  • Use a visual barrier (such as a car or store shelf) to block your dog from seeing the distraction until its gone
  • Act exuberant and silly, and skip away from the distraction
Smiling person in jeans and long-sleeve T-shirt is on a staircase in a hotel with a white pitbull in a harness and on leash walking beside them.
Alex uses a treat to refocus Hitch before reaching the top of the stairs (a transition point)

These are just a few ideas. There are many more. Distractions are contextual, and different things work for different dogs. At our upcoming Attention Please workshop, attendees will have a chance to practice a number of different management strategies. We also cover these in our PEARL DISC course for service dogs.

3. Prepare for Transitions

Dogs typically lose focus any time there is a transition. They often need to be “warmed up” with focus exercises (such as their name or a familiar, highly-rewarding cue like “touch” (hand targeting) before and after a transition point.

Sometimes these transitions feel so minor to us, we don’t even realize a transition has occurred! Trying to look at the world more like a dog can help you prepare for transitions and set your dog up to succeed.

Examples of transitions for dogs are:

  • Walking through a doorway
  • Arriving in a new location
  • Getting in or out of a car
  • A change in the shape of the room/landscape (coming to the end of an aisle in a grocery store)
  • Another person or dog arriving or leaving a space
  • Shifting modes or positions (waking up from a nap or getting up from a “down”)
  • A pause (even a few seconds) in training while their handler gets instructions
  • A change in elevation (stairs, curbs)
Three harnessed and leashed service dogs with their owners are grouped together in a mall.  A blonde woman in jeans and a cardigan has a golden retriever by her side,  a woman with a gray sweatshirt and leggings has an australian shepherd by her side, and a black lab is seen but the owner is not visible. All dogs are looking at their owners.
These service-dog-in-training (SDiT) teams Elizabeth & Beasley (golden retriever), Kate & Arvis (black Labrador retriever), and Brittany & Nova (Australian sheepdog), are prepared to refocus their dogs before walking past a kiosk of moving, screeching electronic toys at the mall.

If you see a transition point coming up, reward heavily for focus right before and after the transition point before asking your dog to do anything else.

4. Change Your Dog’s Emotions

How does your dog FEEL about the distraction? Is she excited? Is he fearful? Reactive? We use a training game called “engage/disengage” to change a dog’s emotions if the distraction is highly charged with positive emotions (extreme excitement or happiness) or any type of negative emotions, such as fear or reactivity.

This training game (also sometimes known as “Look at That” or “Click to Calm”) requires you and your dog to be at a distance from the trigger, particularly if your dog has negative or conflicted emotions about the trigger. In the first phase of the training process, the handler clicks the dog for looking AT the distraction, then provides a high-value treat. Over time, the dog’s emotions change — visible in their body language — and they start to happily anticipate a treat from their handler when they look at the trigger. This allows them to start to disengage from the distraction on their own!

While this game sounds simple — and in many ways, it is — the devil is in the details. If you find your dog struggling with this, working with a force-free service dog trainer may help you iron out the wrinkles and get great results. This is such a common problem, and a great strategy, we include this game in our PEARL DISC foundation course for service dogs.

The video below shows one of our clients skillfully using engage/disengage to train his adolescent golden retriever, who is Very Excited about the trainer standing nearby. Notice how, by the end of the two-minute training session, Spren is reorienting to EJ all on his own!

Spren learns to disengage from an exciting friendly stranger on his own, with only rewards-based methods! Good dog!

5. Work with a Skilled, Positive-Reinforcement Service Dog Trainer

If you are highly skilled, resourceful, and confident, and your dog is very trainable, you may be able to train a service dog with little help from a professional trainer. But it will usually take longer, involve more “fixing” of training mistakes, and be more stressful for both you and your dog.

I know about this firsthand because I trained my service dogs for myself using nothing but a book and an email list back in the 1990s when there were no professional trainers who could help me. Fortunately, the world has changed a lot, and now there are wonderful trainers who can make the process much smoother for you and your dog.

A large gray fluffy dog is trotting up a ramp carrying a grocery bag, and a woman with short brown hair and a red shirt is moving up the ramp in a motorized chair behind the dog. A green van is parked behind both.
I trained my service dog all on my own to carry groceries from the van to the house. That was easier than training him to pay attention to me around other dogs! I wish I had been able to work with a trainer!

When it comes to training a service dog around distraction, a professional trainer who uses force-free (reward-based) methods can give you personalized methods and tools to set your dog up for success. This can reduce the pressure and frustration a lot, which also makes your dog happier and more successful, too.

We offer online group classes with individual coaching, as well as periodic in-person workshops. (January 27-28, 2024, we still have space available for attendees to our “ATTENTION PLEASE: Service Dog Training Around Distraction” workshop in Northborough, MA)! Learn more about the workshop here. Private training is available for advanced teams. Register for the workshop, take a class, or get in touch if you have questions!


2 thoughts on “Focus Around Distractions! 5 Tips for Service Dog Training around Dogs & People”

    1. Hi Emily.
      Thanks for asking. We have a client on Long Island. We looked for local training options for her. We don’t know of any service dog trainers in that area. However, we have been doing online service dog training lessons and classes with them. If you contact our office, we can refer you to some rewards-based pet dog trainers in your area, as well as let you know about the options we offer for online service dog training. All the best.

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