Struggling with a Distracted Dog?

One of the biggest struggles we often have as a pet parent is getting our dog to listen to us outside. They have a variety of scents such as freshly cut grass, the neighbor’s sizzling food, the stray cat down the road, and we can’t forget to mention the pee-mail on their local fire hydrant. All of these capture their vigorous olfactory sensors. Not only are we up against the random smells, but they have a variety of visual stimuli, such as unknown people, other dogs, moving vehicles, and, for some dogs, squirrels! These are all just a small number of stimuli that can easily arouse your dog to the point of where they forget about you, but having your dog listen to you despite all of these distractions may be easier than you may think. When it comes to training outdoor cues, we have to understand the rules of what makes our dog responsive to us in the first place. First, before starting any outside work, your dog must gain a solid foundation of following the cues inside your home without distractions. Practicing in different rooms of the house, keeping training sessions short and engaging, and gradually introducing new distractions and environments, such as the outside patio or the driveway, can all contribute to the success rate of behavior. A few questions to ask yourself prior to training outside are listed below: Will they come when you call from another room? Will they follow through with my cues if I’m tossing toys around? Do I generally have about an 80% response rate or above with my dog’s cues? If these answers are yes, then you may be ready to take your training outdoors. A high response rate can be trained by having a thorough understanding of the following points:

  • Triggers and Thresholds
  • Generalization and Fluency
  • Competing Stimuli
  • Value of Reinforcement

Triggers & Thresholds

Behavior is reflexive to the environment whether it’s external (e.g., a squirrel triggers a lunge) or internal (e.g., a full bladder triggers the dog to pee). For this article, we’ll focus primarily on external stimuli. These are known as environmental cues (cues triggered by the environment). Gaining insight into what causes your dog to practice the undesired behavior is the first step to success. From here, you’ll need to figure out how far you can be to the dog’s evocative stimulus before your dog reacts. This can be 15 feet away, 30 feet away, or even a whole football field away. Once you have this thoroughly understood, you can now start your outdoor practice in what we refer to a green and yellow zone. This can also be seen as safe distances where your dog is relaxed or in a state of mind where they are generally interested but aren’t practicing the undesired behavior. Managing your dog’s environment to where your dog only sees an evocative stimulus only during training sessions would boost your effective rate in training behavior. For example, if your dog barks when they see a dog, keeping them from seeing another dog until training sessions will set your dog up for success in their daily life.

Generalization and Fluency

As stated above, practice starts inside the house with no distractions and must be introduced in a gradual manner. Each new environment, whether it’s your house, on the patio, in your friend’s family room, or your local pet store, all are different worlds to your dog. This is called generalization. Generalization simply means your dog can perform the behavior in a variety of environments. In addition to this, practicing your dog’s cues until they perform each behavior with a high success rate of at least 80% indoors will help increase the fluency of their cues outdoors.

Competing Stimuli

In a world of many distractions, you have to become your dog’s primary distraction. In a sense, the weirder you are, the better trainer you are. When you come across a competing motivation such as another animal, food on the ground, or a visitor looking to greet your dog, you may have to let yourself get creative and call your dog away. Use your body language to get on your dog’s level. This will encourage your dog to look at you. Using a light and welcoming voice or clapping your hands sometimes helps as well.

Value of Reinforcement

Dog’s will always do what works. Often pulling towards something exciting, like a person, accomplishes a greet. A dog barking at another dog to go away will often accomplish the other dog to leave. We want to make sure our value of reinforcement is up-to-par with the environment. This may require you to toss the kibble and use something more enticing like unseasoned, boiled chicken or cheese. Allow yourself to test out what works best for your dog in the environment you’re practicing in.

At VentureDog Training, we value that we put a lot of our ideas behind training outdoor cues. Having your dog successfully master their cues despite the distractions they come across will increase your bond with your pup, increase their overall confidence, and encourage safety.

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