Distractions Happen

If you're a student of dog training, you're probably well aware of the oft suggested protocol of teaching new behaviors in a low distraction environment and slowly adding in distractions until the behavior becomes reliable. This is, of course, the easiest way for a dog to learn what you'd like them to do and to be able to do that thing regardless of distractions. However, in the real world, distractions happen.

To avoid them completely until the dog is "trained" is simply unrealistic.  

In my training classes, there are times when I'm teaching my students how to teach their dogs to be calm and polite when guests come over to the house. We talk about sitting for greeting, staying on a mat, leave it and desensitizing the dog to the sounds of knocking and door bells. Of course these skills need to be practiced regularly in low distraction situations, working up to the high distraction of actual visitors. At the same time, before that training is completed, my students will probably have visitors to their house.

Just as it's important to understand distraction levels and how to add distraction to training, it's also important to have an interim plan for when real life doesn't play by the rules. I see a lot of clients who feel guilty and confused about what to do when the real world is happening around them before their dog is fully trained for the real world. There is a gap between "in training" and "trained for this" that is often not explained clearly.

Here are the things I tell my students to think about when it feels like they and their dog are in over their heads:

Management - If the situation is so overwhelming that there's just no chance to turn it into a training opportunity, it's okay to avoid the chaos. For instance, if UPS is delivering a package and you just want to get what you ordered, thank the driver and get on with your life, there's no shame in quickly crating the dog with a chewy or putting her outside until the driver is gone.

If you're baking a cake for your child's birthday and the dog is underfoot, it's okay to skip the training, gate off the kitchen or crate the dog. When a herd of children come over for the birthday party, you're not shirking your training responsibility if you send the dog to the neighbor's house for a play date, crate her or settle her in the bedroom with some chewies and toys. Management is an excellent tool for keeping you and your dog from undue stress, making mistakes and practicing inappropriate behavior.

Working at Your Dog's Level - Your ultimate goal when someone knocks on the door might be to have your dog go to their mat, stay and wait for permission to greet guests with a polite sit. But you don't have to attempt to do all of that if company comes before you and your dog are ready to exucute the perfect plan.

Instead, work at your dog's level and practice little pieces of the final plan. You might put a container outside your door with a note instructing guests to arm themselves with treats before knocking. You can answer the door with your dog on leash and ask visitors to ask your dog to sit for treats upon entering.

You might keep your dog on leash during the visit to prevent inappropriate behavior, or decide to crate the dog so you can relax and just enjoy your company. Perhaps you'll bring her out for short sessions of sitting/treating with visitors. It's not what you'll do forever, and it's not the finished product, but these are valuable baby steps in the right direction. It would make no sense to struggle and get frustrated trying to get your dog to do things that she's not yet able to do. 

Planning Ahead - When you have an untrained dog, it's important to think about what challenges you might face in each daily activity. Most frustration occurs when dog and owner find themselves suddenly in a bad situation and frozen with confusion about what to do, or panicking. Think about where you're going, what you might encounter, and what you could do at your dog's current level of training.

Maybe you have to take your dog to the vet. Think about what you might encounter in the parking lot, in the lobby, in the exam room and while you're paying your bill. What's your plan? What is your dog capable of? What management tools can you use?

Simple skills like target training (touch), let's go, leave it or even name recognition can make a big difference in how you and your dog handle the situation. Making sure you have high value treats with you can also help you maintain control.

What you want to be thinking about is, "If this happens, I will do this." So, if your dog starts barking at another dog in the lobby, perhaps you will use your trained, "Let's go!" to create space by moving your dog away. Once there's some distance, you might play with some target training and generous rewards to keep your dog occupied and focused on you. Maybe you'll bring a chewy, a stuffed Kong or a tug toy with you. 


In my next blog I'll go over some of my favorite go-to cues for these high-distraction, high-arousal situations.

An afterthought...

My five year old granddaughter is an ice skater. She has been to one competition so far. The routine was approximately one minute long, and she forgot half of it. However, this competition wasn't about a full, perfectly executed routine. There was no Triple Axel or Lutz. It was about surmounting the fear and nervousness of skating in front of a crowd all alone. It was about being brave and showing the judges that she knew her fundamental skills.

It was still a perfect routine because she got out there. When she forgot what she was supposed to do next, she kept skating until she remembered and finished her routine. She has a lot more training to do, but the experience built confidence and let her and her coach know what she needs to work on next.

A dog in training needs that same gentle acceptance of who they are now as they work toward what they will become. You are also in training as a handler, so don't be too hard on yourself if you forget half of your routine. Keep training and keep getting out there. 

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