Distraction Dog Training

To be successful in competitive obedience, one must teach one’s dog how to ignore distractions. At dog events, there are literally thousands of potential distractions, from a myriad of noises, strange people—including the judge and ring stewards—strange sights, strange dogs, new and exciting odors, to the show site itself.

Dogs are the world’s absolute best associate learners, but they don’t generalize very well. And, as noted writer Alexandra Horowitz, author of several acclaimed books about dogs and dog behavior, has noted, dogs are the anthropologists of us. What this all means is that when you set out to train your puppy to sit, she is not only looking at you, taking in what you’re wearing, your body posture, your odor, but she is also noting the immediate environment, sights, sounds, and smells. This is one reason why, when you take your puppy to Puppy Kindergarten class, she seems to have forgotten everything she knew at home: the new location is different….not to speak of all the distractions of the training ring, the new people, and all her new puppy classmates. And it’s one reason why it can be challenging to excel in competitive dog sports.

The solution in either case is to work in steps to teach your dog, working in new locations, slowly adding distractions as she demonstrates proficiency in each step. Crucial to this, though, is to begin by really getting to know your dog’s personality: it’s the absolute cornerstone to training success. To paraphrase Alexandra Horowitz, we must become the anthropologists of our dogs. It’s vital to know whether you have a bubbly, crazy-energy dog, a more reserved pup, or something in between. This knowledge will help you understand how to communicate with your canine, and this is essential to teaching your dog to be the great companion, polite pet, or competition champion you want her to become.



I show my younger dog, Tank, a yellow Labrador retriever, in competitive obedience and Rally dog sports. He’s earned a Level 1 World Cynosport Rally title, and AKC Obedience Beginner Novice and Rally Novice titles. He currently has two legs towards his AKC Novice title, which, when completed, will give him his Companion Dog title. This class involves two heeling exercises, which require the dog to stay in a specific position next to the handler’s left side.  The first heeling pattern is on leash; a figure 8 around two people-posts follows. The second heeling exercise is off-leash, so the challenge is to make sure the dog stays in heel position. This means the dog needs to keep his attention on the handler, which can be challenging enough in a familiar, low-diversion setting, let alone a busy dog show.

There are almost as many ways to proof against distraction as there are distractions themselves, but the rule of thumb applies: start with none or very few, then increase over time. And there’s another part to this, involving duration. Basically, it means not asking the dog to handle more than he is capable of handling until he has mastered the art of attention in the less-distracting situations. For example, if I want my dog to hold a sit-stay while another person walks around him, I need him to be able reliable at holding the stay, period. From there, I can add another person, simply approaching him, then mark and reward for his obedience. I’ll build the intensity of the distraction at a rate commensurate to his reliability.

Last January, Tank and I earned his second AKC Novice leg at the Dayton Dog Training Club trial. It was, as we say in competition, not pretty. He was distracted by the Utility dog in the ring next to us. It was our first time showing with a team competing at the same time in a conjoined ring. It’s the very type of thing one must proof against. During the stay groups, Tank appeared to be watching the advanced dog working next door, so I silently sent him a hopeful thought: “Watch and learn!

While we did earn our second Novice qualifying ribbon, I wasn’t happy about our heeling scores. Heeling is fundamental, and is an exercise in every level of Obedience. Adding to this, the exercises of Open and Utility are ever more advanced. They require the dog to take greater responsibility, and the more complex exercises must be completed without assistance of the handler. Off-leash heeling is a team exercise, but each member must be in sync with the other without conversation or cues. It’s fundamental to teaching the dog that he has some ring responsibilities.

So as part of Tank’s training and education, I’m making a point of working with him in new, distracting places. It’s a dog training road show! (Melanie does get to come along, sometimes, but since she’s retired from ring sports, I’m working on her tracking training plan.)

Today, Tank and I went over to the Post Office. We have not been there since last year, and while the location is not completely new, the passing of time might have voided that familiarity. My goal for Tank today was for him to get reacquainted with the area. The post office is located in the main business district, on a fairly busy 4-lane road with a recently-renovated brick-and-grass median. The building sits at the back of a parking lot, which sits next to a large hairy—tracking dog term!—parking lot abutted by a small meadow.

First, I let Tank explore the area, but he quickly kept checking in with me. Then we did a little heeling on the sidewalk in front of the P.O. He gave me great attention, which was wonderful, especially since not only were cars zipping past, but a groundskeeper was using a large deck mower to cut the grass on the median just across from where we were working.

This was a very satisfying result of some distraction training. (Video to follow in my next post.) After that, we did some sit and down practice with distraction. Tank and I love working together, so knowing that we’re on the right track with our distraction training gives me confidence about our next time in the obedience ring.

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