Many of us can only dream of having one of those dogs who calmly observes the world around them, takes it all in their stride and willingly looks to their owner for guidance whenever they’re faced with a distraction. You know those dogs who trot along at their owners side through the busy park, ignoring the dogs, people, children and everything else around them? The dogs who wander around having a sniff or calmly greeting others but always checking back in to their owner and listening obediently … oh what a dream that would be!
It probably feels unachievable for many of us, even if that’s the kind of dog you imagined you’d have. Perhaps you thought you’d socialised your puppy properly or you’d put work into their early training, yet somehow the dream hasn’t happened and the reality with your dog is a fair bit more stressful.
How do we go about teaching our dogs to remain more neutral to the world around them? Do you have a dog who struggles to listen around distractions?
Barking or lunging at dogs or people – are they scared? Excited? Frustrated?
Unable to listen around distractions … dogs, people, birds, cyclists, traffic
Worried by noises or random things in the environment
These are just some of the most common challenges we face with our dogs on a daily basis, it can make it stressful and frustrating to take them for walks and leave us wondering where it all went wrong.
The good thing is, all is not lost! There are some relatively simple ways to begin rebuilding your dog’s focus and teaching them to always look to you when faced with distractions.
The Root of the Problem
The reason why we struggle to improve our dog’s challenging behaviours is because we are often so inconsistent with them, we set them up to fail and we don’t teach them the skills they need. We also forget to consider what they’re really feeling and why they’re behaving in certain ways.
Firstly, we need to think about WHY they display a difficult behaviour…
Fear – if your dog is worried by other dogs, people, noises, traffic or anything else they’re encountering then it will cause them to feel stressed. This in turns makes it harder for them to focus and listen to you because they’re too busy feeling scared!
Excitement – your dog may find the world around them so exciting and stimulating, they just can’t process it all or think clearly because it’s all too exciting
Frustration – for some dogs, not being able to practice behaviours they want can cause them to feel frustrated and stressed, this isn’t a good thinking mindset and can really take over their behaviour
Lack of understanding – sometimes it purely comes down to our dogs not knowing any better, they’re simply doing what they know to do and they’ve never been taught any other way
Understanding how your dog is feeling or what is motivating their behaviours might be really obvious and easy to see, but it’s not always straightforward so it can be beneficial to seek help from a qualified professional who can observe your dog and support you with finding those underlying emotions behind their behaviour.
It’s not uncommon to have a conflict of emotions going on, for example, your dog could feel fearful and frustrated … it’s often more complex than we think so working with a knowledgeable trainer or behaviourist is never a bad idea.
In order to improve problem behaviours, you need to address these underlying emotions and reduce the stress response when you dog experiences something scary, exciting or frustrating. We do this by using counter conditioning and desensitisation
Counter conditioning involves changing a dog’s emotional response to a stimulus (i.e. something that triggers a reaction). We can do this by pairing the trigger with good things so the dog begins to see the trigger and remains in a calmer, more positive emotional state.
Desensitisation is a gradual exposure to situations or triggers which can cause difficult behaviours or a negative emotional response, this exposure is done gradually so there is no negative emotional response.
When combined together, these two methods work to teach the dog to respond to triggers in a more positive manner, both emotionally and behaviourally.
Once you have an idea of why certain behaviours are happening, you can make steps to manage your dog’s environment and set them up to make progress.
With good management in place, you can begin teaching the foundations and behaviours which will enable them to learn new behaviours and look to you for support at all times.
Your management strategies will depend on your dog’s problems, the environment they struggle with and your own life and routine. Ideally, management is there to avoid your dog practicing unwanted behaviours while you’re working on new associations and behaviours. It’s important to avoid your dog being triggered into high levels of stress because this will limit their ability to make any progress.
Walk in quieter places away from other dogs, people or traffic (depending what your dog struggles with)
Take a break from walks to allow your dog time to completely de-stress and relax
Drive to walks so you can avoid stressful triggers, such as, meeting dogs on the pavement, traffic, passing people in close proximity
Take different walking routes to create fresh associations in new environments
Use a longline so you can help your dog out and prevent them making mistakes (e.g. stop them taking off across the park to play with a dog!)
Think about what behaviour you want to change and how you can manage your dog’s environment in a way that avoids them being exposed to the trigger or practicing the behaviour. This isn’t forever, it’s just one part of making progress!
What Comes Next?
With management in place, you can begin teaching the skills your dog needs. We’ll start with a simple, easy exercise with can be used in any situation … we call it DMT (distraction-mark-treat) but the concept is very similar to several others … LAT (Look-At-That), Engage-Disengage, and probably many more.
The idea of this exercise is to pair the sight of a distraction which may trigger a reaction from your dog with a positive reward and engagement with you.
Before we start, let’s just get a couple of terms defined:
Trigger – causes a reaction of some form from your dog. A trigger could be a dog, person, car, sound, bird, random object or virtually anything else
Reaction – a reaction isn’t always dramatic barking and lunging, it can also be your dog losing focus, being unable to listen to you or becoming fixated on the trigger. It can also include behaviours such as barking, lunging, and growling
The ultimate goal of this exercise is for your dog to see or hear a trigger and choose to turn back to you, allowing you to then support your dog and help them deal with the situation appropriately. Over time, your dog should learn to respond more neutrally to triggers and make good choices for themselves.
How do we teach it?
1. Pick a marker cue – ‘yes’ is a good word to use but other common ones are ‘nice’, ‘yep’, ‘click’ … pick a word which is short and snappy and comes easily to mind. Try and say it in a clear and consistent tone (we’ll use ‘yes’ as our example word)
2. Build value with the cue – say ‘yes’ and give your dog a treat, repeat this lots until your dog is hearing the cue and looking at you for a treat. You could put the treat in their mouth, throw it to catch or roll it on the floor for them to find … mix it up!
3. Proof the cue – start in low distraction environments or at home, wait for your dog to look away from you and then say ‘yes’ and toss them a treat. Repeat this lots
4. Add distractions – start with low level distractions (i.e. not big triggers for your dog), it could be a distant distraction, a noise, a leaf moving … anything that catches their attention, when they look at it, say ‘yes’ and reward them. Repeat!
5. Add actual triggers – once your dog is responding reliably around low-level distractions, start to practice with things which trigger a reaction from your dog, when they see the trigger, mark ‘yes’ and reward them. Your timing is important, try to mark and reward as soon as they look at the trigger.
There are a few key rules here…
a. Start at a suitable distance so your dog is able to listen and respond to your ‘yes’ cue and take the food treat
b. If your dog begins to react or won’t take your treats then you’re too close to the trigger and you need more distance
6. Increase the criteria – if your dog is responding well then you can begin to increase the trigger level, your dog should never be at the point of reacting or feeling stressed, but you can gradually move closer or increase the difficulty
a. If at any point your dog does react or can’t take the treats then move further away or leave the situation and make it easier next time
With this method, you want to aim for your dog to make a choice themselves i.e. they see or hear a trigger and turn back to you for the reward, before you’ve said ‘yes’. To achieve this, you need to gradually give your dog opportunities to make this choice.
Once they’re reliably hearing ‘yes’ and looking at you, you should start to notice them choosing to turn to you before you even say ‘yes’. Initially this may not happen all the time, it might be once in a while but you can begin to expect more from them
1. Rather than marking ‘yes’ as soon as your dog sees a trigger, wait a second or two for them to choose to look at you, when they do then mark ‘yes’ and reward them
2. If you’ve waited a couple of seconds or you feel your dog is becoming more stressed or agitated by the distraction then don’t wait it out, return to marking ‘yes’ and rewarding more quickly
With lots of practice, alongside good management to keep your dog in a relaxed, learning state of mind, you should find your dog begins to make their own choice to engage with you when faced with a potential trigger. This doesn’t happen overnight and some dogs will need on-going support at times to remind them to turn back to you by marking ‘yes’ and rewarding them more quickly.
Written by Naomi White
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