Mama Sally: I start all dog training with new dogs in their own home, because I can control the environment. I can remove all potential distractions so that my dog can calmly focus on what I am teaching. Then, when the dog has mastered the new command in that quiet environment, I can start to carefully and consistently add distractions, so that the dog is able to figure things out and come along with the training. Remember, we are simply teaching our dogs to consistently produce a given behavior when he sees a specific hand signal or hears a specific verbal word.
In my mind, asking a dog to focus and learn new information in an environment that is loaded with distractions, is a little like asking an 8 year old child to learn flash cards while sitting outside the “Teacup Ride” at Disney World! The thought of asking a child to focus and learn in that setting makes us laugh, and yet we do essentially the same thing when we ask a puppy to focus on learning commands at a group class or while on a neighborhood walk. It’s very, very difficult for dogs to learn to focus while ignoring the distractions of Disney World.
For a special needs dog, training in a quiet setting may be the difference between going forward or the dog shutting down altogether. When dogs are stressed or anxious, all they are thinking about is how to save their hide. Learning opportunities shut down because their focus is all about surviving the ordeal. Training where there are few or no distractions gives your difficult dog the very best environment for learning. As they learn, their confidence grows, and then you can make progress in working through behavioral issues.
As you work through distractions, you need to think about what’s going on in your dog’s mind. When he steps outside the front door to go for a neighborhood walk, you have transported him to Disney World, and he’s become a six year old child. Everything is exciting, and because dogs don’t generalize things well, every time you take him out, it’s all new all over again in his mind. You may think that the neighbors working in their yard is no big deal, but to your dog, that’s simply amazing!! “That yard has pooped neighbors!! What else will happen today?!”
So the big challenge in working through distractions, is getting your dog to tune out “Disney” and focus on his handler. No easy feat, believe me! Focus on laying down the proper foundation for your dog with no distractions, so that he is able to perform the task at 80-90% accuracy. Then he’s ready to move forward. You can add distractions to your quiet environment for training, and over time, transport your dog to the outside environment to conduct training there.
You’ll want to think about what you’re offering your dog that competes with the distraction. Do you praise your dog with a warm, higher pitch that’s soothing, kind and happy? Do you smile at him? Does your training treat have a value that can compete with Disney? Is your leash loose? Are you sending clear, consistent messages to your dog? All of those things can make a huge difference in helping your dog learn to focus through distractions.
The other big thing I want you to think about is working in baby steps!! Use small, measured steps forward so that your dog can come along with the process. Going from a completely quiet house to a busy park is too much to ask of your dog. But going from the house to the driveway when there’s nothing much happening in the neighborhood is perfect. Then, you can add in kids riding bikes past your house, joggers or cars going by, etc. all while you’re still in the safety of the driveway, near your house rather than the street. Gradually, as your dog is able to focus and respond well, you can start moving closer to the distraction, reducing the threshold of reactivity while your dog is figuring things out. If he’s reactive, you’ve gone too quickly, and it’s time to take some steps back and start again.
Many people just rush the process, because humans want what they want, and they think their dogs should be able to just straighten up and fly right! The more you rush the process, the more you increase your dog’s anxiety, because he’s not only excited about the new environment, but he’s also worried about being corrected by you. Many negative leash issues come from over-correcting dogs, and if you will just go slowly with him, you can avoid all of those. Slow and steady will win the race with almost any dog, and just remember that the process is the journey. If Rugby has taught me anything at all, he’s taught me that the journey is the goal, so I’ve learned how to enjoy the process of training, rather than just seeing it as a means to an end.