To make training practical you will need to add controlled distractions. Distractions are things (food, cats, toys, etc.) or situations (traffic, thunderstorms, veterinarian offices, etc.) that will cause our dogs to become temporarily diverted from their normal “good” behavior. Distraction training helps your dog understand that obedience commands, along with the appropriate corrections and praise, are consistent ingredients of his life regardless of change. Make a list of the most distracting items/situations that are difficult for your dog. Rank these distractions from the hardest to easiest.
Begin distraction training with an item or situation other than the most difficult. For example, if your dog goes bonkers with people at the door, start distraction training with a distraction you listed as “easy” such as a toy or food. Distraction training is usually easiest with two people — one to work the dog and one to work the distraction. As your dog establishes self-control, increase the difficulty of the distraction slowly, working towards the most distracting item or situation.
Distance has a great equalizer. Always start the distraction training process by having the distraction at the greatest practical distance possible. For example, when teaching your dog to SIT for door greetings, don’t start the process with your dog directly in front of the door. He will not succeed. Start the process by having your dog SIT with you at your side about ten feet away from the door. As your dog improves, decrease the distance to the door as long as your dog continues to succeed.
Some dogs really have a tough time with distraction training. You can turn distraction training into a game by giving a small treat for every success. As your dog displays self-control, give one small treat for every three successes. Gradually decrease the food reward over several months. Always maintain verbal praise! Sometimes a toy reward will work in place of the treat. The objective is to make the process of distraction training fun but effective.
Start with placing one distraction object on the ground. Give your dog the HEEL command and walk him past the object. Start about four feet away from the distraction. You may want to HEEL in a circle around the object. It will be easier on your dog if you place your body between the dog and distraction. If your dog shows more than a casual interest in any distraction, correct with NO and redirect with HEEL. Praise heartily when your dog ignores the distraction. Once your dog exhibits some self-control with one object, repeat the same exercise with multiple objects on the ground.
Some people have learned LEAVE IT for the previous exercise. While this is also acceptable, proper use of NO will be sufficient. We will review exercises to teach the LEAVE IT command in Creating Manners.
After your dog shows the ability to ignore a stationary object, you will want to increase your dog’s self-control by distraction training with moving objects. Quick-moving objects are generally highly stimulating for almost all dogs. Even their eyesight is more attuned to motion than human eyesight which makes motion even more distracting. For these reasons, we will introduce motion slowly by using the following formula: toss, bounce, and roll.
Toss. Begin with your dog in a SIT position at your left side. Hold the object (most likely a ball) in the right hand and toss the object into the air one time. After each toss, if your dog remains in the SIT, praise. If your dog breaks the SIT position, correct with NO and redirect with SIT. Repeat tossing the object in the air until your dog remains in the SIT for three consecutive tosses. Give your dog a BREAK command to signal the end of that session.
Once you feel your dog is developing some self-control to tossing an object with the SIT command, repeat the “toss” distraction training process with her in a DOWN command. If you feel inclined, HEEL with your dog at your left side and toss the object to yourself with the right hand.
Bounce. Begin again with your dog in a SIT position at your left side. With your right hand, bounce the object onto the floor. After each bounce, if your dog remains in the SIT, praise. If your dog breaks the SIT position, correct with NO and redirect with SIT. Repeat bouncing the object on the ground until your dog remains in the SIT for three consecutive bounces. Give your dog a BREAK command to signal the end of that session.
Roll. At this point, your dog should be able to ignore: “stuff” on the ground, “stuff” tossed in the air, “stuff” tossed on the ground, or “stuff” bounced off the ground. The motion is stimulating and the self-control is real, but a rolling object is really exciting! Having a second person to help with the distraction is really helpful at this stage. Have the distractor stand approximately ten feet away from you and your dog. Roll the object in a neutral direction (neither towards nor away) in relation to you and your dog. Praise your dog for ignoring the rolling distraction.
Gradually decrease the distance between your dog and the distractor rolling the object. Change direction so the object rolls directly away from your dog or directly towards. Change from SIT to DOWN. Praise for every success.
A small, furry toy with a string attached is an excellent distraction for dogs who like to chase cats. Place the object on the floor. With the dog in a SIT or DOWN, have the distractor pull the toy across the floor, first in one motion and then in several jerky motions. Praise your dog for all successes.
Sometimes distraction training with quick movements causes your dog to become excited. Keep your voice calm and repeat the distraction exercise until your dog relaxes around the distraction.
Have your dog in a SIT or DOWN on a long leash. Have a distractor midway between you and your dog with ten feet to either side. Give the COME command. As your dog recalls toward you, have the distractor toss a ball or toy across and in front of your dog’s path. If your dog diverts his recall, leash (or remote) correct with NO and re-command COME. If your dog completes his recall, praise heartily!
New places are as exciting as new things and require that you change your training environment. Too often our dogs will become accustomed to behaving only in certain environments. The ball your dog ignored in the living room will be newly distracting in the kitchen.
Your dog may become acclimated to training outdoors and not indoors or vice versa. Practice your training sessions in every environment. View every room in your house as a different training environment. Train in the bedroom, basement, hallway, living room, garage, and/or kitchen. The more frequently you change your training environment, the faster your dog will respond to changes in all environments.
Make a list of at least five places to take your dog to train. All of these places should be outside of your home. Examples include veterinarian offices, the park, local shopping centers (outside), pet stores, or simply in town on the sidewalk. Visit at least three different environments per week during your first six to nine months of reinforcing the obedience commands.
Distraction training also establishes leadership and builds respect by requiring your dog to do things he doesn’t necessarily want to do. Distraction training also builds your dog’s self-discipline and the ability to suppress impulses. Through regular distraction workouts you will be able to manage your dog in any situation.