Getting your dog to focus on you while on a walk when chipmunks are present, people or other dogs are around, or there is a great smell in the air, can seem unattainable to so many of us. We hear stories all the time about how a certain dog does amazingly at home, but as soon as they are around any distraction it is like their parents no longer exist. Sound familiar? Well, we are here to tell you that you are not alone!
Dogs can get distracted by so many different things and for different reasons. Ask any Beagle owner and they will probably tell you that a good smell is the most distracting thing in the world to their dog. Ask the same question to a Terrier owner and they will probably say little creatures are more distracting than anything. To an owner of a Golden Retriever it will probably be people who are potential friends or, maybe it is a mixture of all of those things. Whatever it is that distracts your dog, these three tips will help you get more focus from them in the face of those things.
Make sure you are rewarding with high value treats.
We do not work for free. If your boss came in and said, “You should all do this because it is what I want you to do, not for money, so we are cutting everyone’s pay.” How quickly would you quit that job? Dogs will not work for free either. Your dog wants to be out, following their nose, chasing critters, making new friends, and rolling in gross things. That is natural to them. Walking politely next to us, ignoring their instincts and giving us their undivided attention, is most definitely not! It is important to understand what motivates your dog, what makes them want to work. For example, the Red Pointy Dogs will do just about anything for string cheese, boiled chicken, or meat balls. So you better believe that is what we have with us when we are headed somewhere that will be extremely distracting for them. Maybe your dog can not resist Rawbble, leftover steak, or peanut butter. Maybe food really is not their biggest motivator. Maybe it is playing, so bringing their favorite toy or ball is the best answer to making sure that reward is valuable enough to be effective. Whatever your dog is into, it is so important to make sure that it is meaningful enough to make it worth their while. Giving your dog a good reason to do what we want leads to strong relationships and reliable behavior.
Start with small, controllable distractions.
We can not predict when a chipmunk will scream and run away, when a bike will ride by, or someone with a dog will come up while we are out and about. When things are unpredictable they are much more difficult to deal with. If you want to be successful in real life scenarios it is best to start with controlled training sessions, using small distractions at first. Then, building to more and more distracting things as your dog does well.
Start out in a quiet place, your living room for example, with your dog on leash and with plenty of treats. At the beginning, use some toys that are not their favorite, place them on the ground. Practice the Name Game while walking towards and away from the toys. The Name Game is pretty simple but can make a huge difference in all of your training!
Say your dog’s name and if they look at you, mark and reward! If they do not, make sure not to repeat yourself as that will have a negative impact in your training. Instead make a funny noise, try a kissing sound, whistle or clap your hands. Once they look over, mark and reward. Remember, if your neighbors or family members think you are strange while you are training your dog you are doing something right!
If that is too much for your dog, move further away until you can get their attention reliably.
Have a dog that is not all that interested in toys? Try putting some food behind a gate or locked in their crate, to practice this. As they are more and more successful, use more distracting toys and treats until you are able to keep their attention and be successful with the Name Game around their favorite things.
Once they are responding well to their name around distractions you can try working on a few other behaviors as well. Touch (Video here) and Place (Video here) are both valuable behaviors for your dog to respond well to!
Use the Look at That game for distractions.
Distractions, whether you are a dog or a human, are a fact of life. Often our goal is to get our dogs to ignore those distractions. This however can have an adverse effect of making those distractions more concerning and it can lead to more frustration. The Look at That game (aka Engage/Disengage) is a unique and effective way to help your dog concentrate better. The idea is you teach your dog to deal with the things they find distracting while teaching them that yes, you can engage with that distraction, but disengaging works much better for you!
In order for this to work you need a strong marker. Whether you use a clicker or a verbal marker (like Yes) it needs to be something your dog really knows well. Check out our video on charging the clicker here. Next time your dog sees a distraction, at a distance preferably, don’t say anything, just use your marker. If they respond, great! Reward appropriately. If not, take your treat, put it right in front of your dog’s nose and lure them until they are looking at you. Then deliver your reward.
Once your dog is responding to that marker reliably when around distractions, the next step is to wait. Once your dog sees the distraction, pause a moment and let your dog think. Eventually, as long as they are ready for this step, they will look back to you. Once they do, mark the behavior and reward. Even throw a party! They just chose to disengage with something and give you their attention! This is a big deal and means you are well on your way to having a dog that can focus around all types of distractions.
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