At Michigan Dog Training in Plymouth, Michigan; we are asked thousands of questions about how to train a dog. One of the most popular question is, Â “When should I add distractions to my dog’s training program.” And, its a great question because sometimes the question isn’t asked but should be asked. For example, one cannot expect their dog to come off leash when chasing a squirrel if he or she hasn’t yet accomplished an on leash recall with gradual increasingly tougher distractions. Â However, you would be surprised as to how many people achieve a simple on leash recall and then say to themselves, “lets see if my dog can come when in hot pursuit of a squirrel” and then wonder why their dog wasn’t successful.
“When should I add distractions to my dog’s training program?”
The simple answer to when one should add distractions to their dog’s training program is, “as fast as possible and as slow as need be” as coined by Robin MacFarlane CEO of That’s My Dog in Dubuque, Iowa. It is similar to when teaching a child new skills; one should break the learning components into easy to understand parts and perform them in distraction free environments in the beginning.
The same is true when teaching puppies and dogs new manners. For example, when training the sit command, teach it first without the presence of distractions such as in your kitchen rather than in the back yard or at the park.Â Lure the dog’s nose upward with a piece of food so that he raises his head up. When the head goes up usually the rear goes down and touches the floor.Â And, walla you have a sit.Â Later, fade out the food lure for simply the voice command of sit so that your dog doesn’t become reliant on only the visual stimulation of seeing the treat. Thus, one can use luring to teach the body mechanics of the sit but one would want to remove the need for luring as soon as possible. This can be done by saying the word sit prior to showing the food lure. Over time, the dog will learn the word sit and no longer need to see the food lure to know that if he sits, he will gain the treat. When the dog is correct in performing the sit 80% of the time, one can start to increase the area distractions where the sit is requested such as in the back yard or on the street corner.
Adding in distractions
When adding in distractions, think of all the distractions your dog may come across when being asked to perform a sit and put them on rungs of an imaginary ladder and climb your way up the ladder, as fast as possible but as slow as need be. However, be careful not to climb to fast or try to skip rungs and thus slide back down the ladder. Keep a consistent and manageable upward ascent to set your dog up for continued success.
Case in point, last April I recommenced Kaboom’s tracking sessions with the onset of spring weather. Kaboom is fairly new to tracking so I wanted the distractions to be minimal as possible in the beginning. As he gains confidence in the track, I’ll purposely add environmental distractions. After laying my morning track in Northville, Michigan, I returned to the vehicle to retrieve Kaboom. As I approached my vehicle, a joyful elderly man carrying a large remote controlled plane proceeded out to the area in which I had just laid my track.
Instantly, my heart sunk as Kaboom had never experienced such a high distraction tracking field. And, then my adopted motto, “as fast as possible, as slow as need be” came to mind.Â And, so I thought to myself, yes the plane will be a big distraction but how nice of this man to bring a plane to help me with my distraction training.Â : )Â Â Â As it turned out, I was very pleased with Kaboom’s dedication to the track despite a plane flying through the air and despite the man standing two feet from where the track was laid. Kaboom simply passed the man and stayed on track. I couldn’t ask for anything better than that. And, what a joy it was to talk with this passionate man who was out for his first spring day of flying.
However, if Kaboom had been distracted by the plane or the man standing so close to the track, it wouldn’t have been a complete loss.Â It simply would’ve showed me what I needed to work on and the plan would’ve been to seek out other similar distractions at a further distance from the track so that he could be successful. Then as he experienced little successes, decrease the distance between the distraction and the track. And, it is the same with obedience training.
Dog training 101
- Break the training goal into small easy to understand components
- Teach the components in a distraction free environment
- Thread the components into the desired goal
- Practice the new skill in various environments that offer gradual challenging distractions
And, how fast do we move from one step to another? I look for 80% comprehension before increasing the training expectation or distraction. In summary, “as fast as possible but as slow as need be.”