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I often use the analogy with my students that training skills in the face of distractions is akin to trying to learn calculus on a roller coaster at Disney World. It would take a very seasoned math whiz to be able to focus on math during SUCH exciting times. The same is true of our dogs. Trying to teach them new skills when they are over-faced with excitement will likely increase the frustration level for you both, but won't likely help them learn what you'd like them to. 

Dogs are quite capable of ignoring ALL levels of distraction, but it will take a special approach to get there.

So, how do you navigate the road to Disney? That is the topic of today's post. 

Picture yourself in a busy room. The walls are covered with strange objects that are interesting, but don't fit into any context that you recognize or understand. On the other side of the room, there is a buffet. When you spot it, your stomach rumbles. You instinctually head towards the buffet, but you are stopped by a wall. You can feel the wall, but you can't see it. Your problem-solving skills kick in and you try to find a hole in the wall, you try to climb it, you try to find the edge so you can move around it. You start to bang fruitlessly on the wall. Frustration starts to mount. No matter how hard you try, you can't seem to get to the buffet that you want SO much. To make matters worse, you lack the skills to get there and the understanding of why you can't. 

This strange mental image might be the equivalent of your dog's feelings about life. 

When we set out to train, it's really important to understand how dogs think and learn, especially since it's such a stark contrast to humans. 

Humans can conceptualize where dogs can't

When we go to school to learn, we're usually prepared. We have out books, pencils, and most of all, we know we're there for a purpose - to pay attention and learn. The concept of teaching and learning is very familiar to us. 

Dogs are just living their lives. Not only do they lack the communication tools they will require to read and respond to us, they also don't know that the name of the game is learning! All they know is that the buffet (distractions) is beyond their reach. To them, that often means trying HARDER to get to it. Pulling, lunging, barking are all canine tactics to problem solve the bridge between where they are and where they want to be. If these tactics work, they are often strengthened through rehearsal. 

I used to tease my mother. She and her CKC Spaniel lived a wonderful existence together for many years, but my mother wasn't ever motivated to teach him not to pull. As a small dog, this worked out okay for them, but I often wondered if Willy thought his job was to pull a 100-pound woman around the neighbourhood. He never complained about the extra effort, he just worked harder to get from point A to point B. 

Dogs don't know there is a more desirable behaviour you'd like from them. Not only that, they don't know that there are other options outside of their instincts! This is what training is all about. 

The White Room

If we are to hope that our dogs will pick up the lessons we have to teach them, we have to be as fair and accomodating of the different ways they learn as we can.  

When you introduce a new skill, there should be nothing else competing for your dog's attention. I call this level of distraction 'The White Room'. Find a quiet place in your home to use as home base. Ideally, it's a reasonably small area so your dog can't get far if they find something else exciting. Baby gates or X-Pens will help you with this setup.

Now, teach! With your dog's full attention, you should have quick success in helping them identify the new skill you're teaching. Whether it's a shake-a-paw or a life-saving recall, introducing it with your dog's full attention will set your path to success. 

The Number of Reps will Surprise You

All dogs will differ in their learning processes. Some will learn quicker than others, but most will require more successful repetition of each skill than you'd expect. Like us, sleep helps them commit lessons to long term memory, so lots of rest and naps with young pups will help cement skills! 

Keep working in the white room until your pup or dog shows that they understand the lesson before trying to make it more difficult or part of daily life. Just because they can do it in 'the white room' doesn't mean they're ready for the real world. 

Building on Distractions

Once your dog understands the skill in a white room, it's time to add some colour! Don't go from white to tye-dye, but add in a splash of colour a bit at a time.   You'll know it's time to add more based on your dog's responsiveness to the skill you're teaching.

Keep your criteria the same as when the room was distraction-free and don't add more until your dog can nail it! You can add more colour splashes a brushstroke at a time. 

This is the most enjoyable and direct road to Disney you'll find! Where your dog's success dictates the next step. 

Once your dog has mastered a few distractions in the now colourful white room, you're ready to move to a new environment to keep building on their skills. Don't stagnate in any one level for too long, but don't rush the process either. A good goal might be to add one small distraction per training session and then re-assess from there.  

Distraction Levels

You can up the level of distraction without changing the environment to help cement your dog's understanding. The more they succeed when you challenge them, the stronger their skill will become. 

Here's an example of making the environment more of a challenge! This was a new location and we spent our first training session here building value for listening and working hard with me. Our second training session needed more challenge, so I added some!

I like to think of distractions in terms of levels with each dog - they are all different. For example, Reggie is a walking stomach! His food distraction level is a 25 on the toughness scale. Ned is far more civilized about eating. He loves food, but his food distraction level would be around a 5. I've identified the distractions I added to the parking lot as well as their level of enticement for Ned.

Asking Ned to focus with these temptations present will give him the chance to practise a bit of math while the roller coaster moves slowly. The more he practises successfully ignoring distractions, the easier it becomes! Eventually, real-world distractions become easy for your dog to contend with since ignoring them and listening has provided SO much value to them previously.  

plot distractions.png

The Ladder 

Think of building response around distractions like climbing a ladder. The bottom rung is a white, clean room in your home and the top rung is Disney. Fill the rungs between the first step and the landing with levels of distractions. Then, climb one rung at a time! 

Remember that not only do distractions cause conflict, they'll also stack. Consider smells, sights, sounds etc. when you're choosing your environments. For example, sticking closer to home where smells aren't so novel will be a simpler distraction than a new neighbourhood. Going to a new neighbourhood, while important for the big picture, might not be part of your training for a few more training sessions. A bit of assessment and planning will go a long way. 

Take your time to help your dog understand how to navigate our world and distractions will be something that helps, rather than hinders your success. 

Until next time, 

Happy Training!

Hi! I'm Shannon Viljasoo and I joined the McCann team in 1999 while training Quincey, my wonderful and spirited Rottweiler, to have good listening skills. I'm the Director of Online Training and Content for McCann Professional Dog Trainers and I enjoy writing about dogs and dog training for the McCann blog. I currently share my life with 2 Tollers (Reggie & Ned) and I love helping people develop the best possible relationship with their 4-legged family members.