Distractions, they are all around us! So often in puppy training we recommend that we teach a new behaviour in a low distraction environment, and gradually increase the level of distraction until you reach your final goal of having a dog that will perform the behaviour in ALL environments. This is, of course, the best and most effective way to train. However, real life gets in our way, life is annoying like that! In the ‘mid way’ stage, between starting training and BEING trained, is a bit of a grey area where owners get a bit confused and panicky.
All of us wish to have a dog who will behave well (or how we want them to) in all environments. From the house, to the park, to the car, to the vets, to training classes. We do ask an awful lot of our dogs! Often, with distraction training, one of two things can happen.
- Firstly, the distraction levels are simply ignored, and a dog will be perfectly behaved in their obedience class, and in their living room at home, because this is where they are taught their gold standard training. However, if we put that dog into a vets waiting room or a pet shop, we see a very different dog who does not appear to have done any obedience at all! The behaviours taught have not been generalised (or proofed) and the context in which they are being asked has changed far too quickly.
- Secondly, life happens! However much we try to set up scenarios in which we can train and gain focus from our dogs, we can not control what we encounter in life. So, you’ve done fantastically well with teaching your pup to walk on a loose lead, you’ve progressed to getting out of the house with no pulling and full attention on you, but uh oh……there is a dog walking past just as you leave your front door and your pup is delighted and pulling like a train to see it! Life happens.
So, what can we do? Distraction training is important, essential in fact if you are to have a dog who will engage with you well in varying environments. That won’t change and I will continue to teach all puppies how to focus around distractions using various exercises. So we continue to set our pups up in the best way we can and prepare them for all manner of distractions.
But what else can we do?
- Management of the environment – break behaviours down into achievable increments, and work through them. Say, for example, you have a guest coming over, long term you are hoping to have your pup go to his bed and wait to be released to greet the visitor. This will take time to practice, and you will likely have guests over in the mean time! Try asking for ONE part of the behaviour to start off with, simply sitting for the guest in the beginning stages. Or, more practically speaking, pop your pup on a lead whilst your guest is over and reward him for settling next to you. Use a baby gate and let your pup have a nice stuffed kong to munch on whilst you are with your guest. You can still continue to practice and teach your ‘on your bed’ and wait, you can still set up ‘mock guests’ to work on this with, but in ‘real life’ you may just want to chat to your guest!
- Know your pup – recognise your pups current level of training and don’t expect too much too quickly. What is your pup capable of? If you can’t walk up to a person to say hello without your pup pulling, can he maybe walk 3 steps without pulling and sit for the person to approach? Can we reward that? Building up to 4 steps, then 5? etc? Work with your pup and his current level of ability.
- Be practical – sometimes in life you have to be realistic. If you have an extremely exuberant pup and you are, for example, having something delivered to your home, there really is nothing wrong with popping your pup in his crate or behind a baby gate with a chew toy to minimise disruption and keep everybody safe and happy. You don’t need to stand with your delivery man struggling to keep your pup from jumping up at him whilst trying to sign for your delivery and muttering words of apology in the process! Be practical, if your pup is not up to the level of sitting for visitors and it is not an appropriate training situation, then take the easy way out, there is no shame in making life easy for ourselves sometimes!
As I said, distraction training is very important and will help your pup long term to focus and engage with you in any environment, however, life does happen! Distractions are everywhere and we can not always predict when they will occur. Be prepared, if you are going to a new environment with your pup think ahead, what could happen and what will you do, at what level is your pup and how will you tackle it if he does pull you somewhere new, or jump up at people in a new and exciting place, or bark at a strange and unfamiliar dog. Think ahead, plan as best you can, but don’t forget it is not always a bad thing to sometimes take the easy way out!
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