When I ask clients about their biggest difficulties in training their dogs, one of the most common answers I get is “distractions.” Their dogs might be doing great at home or in places with very few distractions, but as soon as the dogs are distracted by something else, all that training seems to go out the window. The biggest distractions tend to be moving objects – people, other dogs, cats, and wildlife such as bunnies, squirrels, or deer.
There are several ways to address distractions. One is to gradually build your dog’s ability to focus on you and do whatever is asked regardless of the distractions. In this case, you are focusing on sit, stay, come, or whatever it is you are asking your dog to do regardless of what else is present. You are, in essence, ignoring the distraction by asking your dog to pay attention to you and determine that the distraction is irrelevant. Where most people fail at this is when they have not GRADUALLY worked up to the level of distraction they are addressing. Distractions need to be added gradually at a level the dog can handle.
Another option is to address the distraction specifically before asking the dog to do something else. Some people use “No!” for this, but I do not. I use a “leave it” which is more specific than a “No.” With “leave it” my dog knows he is supposed to turn away from the specific object he is focused on and return his attention to me. This could also be done via a “watch me” or “look” cue, which means to focus on my face.
I was walking Romeo the other morning (June 2012) and we had three chances to practice with wildlife. In the first instance, we were only a couple of minutes into our walk, Romeo was still on his 20 foot long line, and we came across a bull snake (about 4 feet long) in the middle of our path. While Romeo is somewhat cautious around snakes, he lately has become more confident and has picked up the last two snakes we encountered. Not a good idea, especially if one of these days we encounter a rattlesnake. In this case, I used my cue “check in” which means return to my side, sit and focus on me. Response to me with the distraction of a snake has been a challenge for us. This day, however, when I told him to “check in” he did right away. I then asked him to walk “with me” which means beside or behind me but not out in front. We skirted around the snake and continued on our walk.
Later in our walk, Romeo was off-leash and we encountered a smaller green snake. Romeo was about 10 feet ahead of me and found the snake on our trail. He began pursuit, but I said “leave it” and he stopped. A simple “let’s go” got Romeo continuing on our path and leaving the snake to continue elsewhere.
Then toward the end of our walk, we encountered a bunny. By this time, he was back on his 20 foot line. Bunnies are one of our biggest challenges. In this case, I used “wait” which means Romeo is not to proceed forward and should be tuned in with me waiting his next instruction. With him waiting, I moved up beside him and asked him to walk “with me” so we could finish or walk and not pursue the bunny.
My point is that there are many options for addressing distractions, and part of your job is figuring out which of those options works best for you. You might have one or two cues that your dog is much more reliable at that you can use in these situations. You might realize that you need more work on specific cues that you want to use. But it’s always good to have a few options from which to choose.