Imagine this: you’ve been working so hard with your dog. She’s doing really well and you’re thrilled about it! Then you take her to the park and it seems like she hasn’t learned a thing! Her attention is everywhere but on you and she won’t respond to any of the cues she responds to well at home. What happened?? All dog owners have been there! It’s frustrating and disappointing, but the good news is that we can change that! By setting our dogs up for success and slowly increasing their threshold for working around distractions, we can build up to working them anywhere and still maintaining great focus!
Here are some tips for keeping your dog's focus no matter where you take them!
Step 1: Get your dog's focus inside
Dog trainers often refer to this as engagement: when a dog engages us for our attention. Rather than begging a dog for their attention, an engaged dog offers us their attention! To achieve engagement, start by working your dog in the lowest distraction environment you can. This is likely somewhere in their house that they are super comfortable and might even find boring. Somewhere that your dog is calm, confident, comfortable and easily able to focus. If you have other dogs in your house, put them up while working one dog at a time. If you regularly train in your yard and your dog is focused there, that's fine too! In that low distraction environment, we need to get our dog’s attention and get them excited to work. We cannot expect to have our dog’s focus in distracting environments if we don’t have our dog’s focus in non-distracting environments. Some tips to get your dog motivated/engaged with you:
Use their meals for rewards! A hungry dog will be more likely to offer engagement, so work your dog around mealtime before feeding them. It is best to use your dog's meal for each of your training sessions. If your dog gets 1 cup of kibble for dinner and you train around dinner time, rather than feeding your dog in a bowl, portion out his 1 cup meal and use it as treats. You can be done with your session when the 1 cup runs out or use a portion of it and feed the remainder in a bowl when you’re done. By putting our dogs on a feeding schedule where they work for their meals, they will be more motivated to work with us! If we only ever use high value treats (such as chicken, cheese, extra smelly bacon flavored stuff, etc.), there’s a good chance we might eventually run out of higher value food. If we can use low value food (kibble) in low distraction settings (around home), that will give us the ability to use higher value food (chicken/cheese) as a novel treat if we need it later! Also, it will prevent weight gain and overweight dogs are often less motivated/engaging than appropriate weight dogs.
Keep sessions short, sweet and successful! If you draw out sessions too long to where your dog gets bored, they will start to associate training with being bored. Especially with puppies! Multiple 5-minute sessions are often more valuable than one 30-minute session.
Use a start and end cue to signal to your dog when you are about to begin your session and when you are ending your session. For me, I use “ready” which means we are about to work for food and “all done,” which means the training session is over, no more food.
When you feel like you can easily get and KEEP your dog’s focus with low-value food (kibble) in a neutral environment (at home), then it is time to progress. Don’t move to the next step until you are happy with how your dog is responding in step 1!
Step 2: Make the environment SLIGHTLY more challenging
The next step is to move to a slightly more challenging environment. You know your dog best, so it is important that you use that information to gauge your next step. If your dog is naturally very fearful, timid or unconfident, maybe your first move is within the house! Can you keep their focus in every room? What about the garage? If your dog is fairly bold, confident and curious, maybe you move outside of the house, to the back yard or the driveway. Be sure to set your dog up for success! If your neighbor’s dogs are out and barking at the fence line, that probably isn’t the right time to move to the backyard or if your street is full of people, dogs, kids, etc., wait until it is empty to move to the driveway.
Once in your new location, use your activation cue ("ready”) to get your dog excited to work with you. Try to keep the session as similar to the sessions you have in the least distracting environment! In this new environment, only ask your dog to do things he is REALLY good at it. If your dog doesn’t like to lay down inside, you aren’t going to have more success getting him to lay down outside. Stick to easy things, like targeting, place and sit. You might want to keep sessions shorter in a new environment, especially if you struggle to keep your dogs focus. The goal is to ALWAYS have their attention when we ask for it, so if we are losing their attention, we are conditioning behavior we don't want.
Step 3: As your dog is successful in step 2, slowly add more challenges
Once your dog is responding well in that new environment, then add a bit more challenge! Always set your dog up for success. I don’t recommend “testing” dogs at this point. If you’re wondering if a specific environment might be too much for your dog to focus in, that’s your sign to do more work before heading there. A good next step might be a totally empty park or parking lot. Something with very few distractions and not a lot going on. As your dog does well, slowly increase the number of distractions and challenges until you are able to keep your dogs focus around any distraction! If your dog is struggling, don’t make it any harder for them. It’s ALWAYS fine to back up a step. In fact, you should! Keep working on that difficult down at home. When it is no longer difficult, start back at the beginning to try down in the backyard, then down at the empty park, then down in a more distracting area. This is not linear training, it is always approach and retreat!
A few additional notes:
Some dogs might fly though this, other dogs might take a lot of time. It is not enough to practice, but to practice well. If you are constantly blowing through your dog’s thresholds and putting them in environments that they can’t be successful in, you will definitely regress. That being said, if you make a bad call or something unexpected happens and it rattles your dog, shake it off and take a step back to your previous environment. Learn from it and know life goes on!
Smells are a HUGE distraction for dogs. So while an empty dog park might look like it doesn’t have any distractions, alllll of the smells make it one of the hardest locations. Be aware of different scents that could cause your dog to struggle with their focus! (And don’t take your dog to dog parks ever, period!)