It is a very common problem of companion pet owners. Their dog ‘knows’ a particular behavior like sit or stay but seems to completely forget or tune out when there are distractions around. And often that dog may be labeled bull-headed, stubborn, dumb, or dominate.
The reality, however, is any number of reasons… the behavior may not have a strong reinforcement history, it may not have been taught with consistency, there may be a stronger value for the dog to do anything but the behavior asked for are just some of the potential causes but none of them have to do with the labels listed above.
I was just working with one of my puppy clients the other day who thinks everything that moves and tastes yummy is absolutely fascinating. When we began working on loose leash skills, instead of working against those distractions (a battle that will be hard fought) we worked WITH them.
In her first lesson, she was catching on pretty quickly the contingency that *if* she runs to the end of her leash after a moving leaf, *then* the opportunity to chase it went away but *if* she took even one step in the beginning with me or her owner, *that* she got the opportunity for awesome fun of leaf chasing. We also worked on the same type of exercise adding in asking her to sit for the opportunity to get food in a bowl or greet a stranger walking by.
The Premack Principle states that a high probability behavior will reinforce the less probably behavior, and this does not always have to be positive, just more probably. As an example, going out to train animals or meet with someone is a higher probability behavior for me than writing this post; and I know that when I finish this, that I can go out to do other activities I would rather do. Therefore, I am more probable to get this done quickly to be able to leave my house and the opportunity to leave has become my reinforcer for writing.
From this puppy’s perspective, chasing leaves is a highly probable behavior. Sitting and walking on a loose leash are less probable, but the sitting and walking on a loose leash can become more probable to her by pairing those behaviors with the consequence of chasing leaves.
Here is the thing. If your learner is SO focused on that other stimulus that she cannot think about anything else, then you as her teacher can make some modifications in your lesson plan to help her succeed.
Remember, the less opportunities there are for your student to practice (and get reinforced) for unwanted behavior choices, the quicker you will be able to teach and build value for wanted behavior choices.
Here are a few tips of training your dog (or other pet) successfully with distractions:
If your pet is so close that all she can think about is the distraction, then you are too close. Back up to where you and your student can succeed and begin working on the behavior then. Here is a post I wrote about how adding distance from a front door was how I taught a dog to eventually sit at the door.
Distance is your friend whether you are working on a reactivity issue or teaching self control. By exposing your student to a stimulus at a level that does not evoke an undesired response and gradually increasing the intensity of the stimulus as your pet can continue to succeed (either with relaxed body muscles for a reactive dog or with the ability to do a specific behavior), you are desensitizing her to that environmental stimulus.
Easy Does It On Distractions
Add distractions only at a level where your pet can continue to succeed. Just because your student can sit in your quiet living room and on your porch, does not mean you are ready to take that training to an active park or pet store.
Compiling a list of potential distractions will help, ranking them according to their level of distraction. And know that distractions are cumulative, meaning several low level distractions in an environment can add up to a higher level distraction.
As You Increase Difficulty With One Criteria, Lower Other Criteria
Know that as you add distractions, this is going to make the lesson plan more difficult, so lowering other criteria will be helpful. For example, if, in your home you had worked up to 30 second duration and being able to walk five feet from your pet with your down/stay behavior; know that when you take this lesson on the road, in a more distracting environment, you will want to begin working with much less distance and much less time duration, and work back up to those criteria.
Increase The Rate Of Your Reinforcement
This is sort of an extension of my previous tip on lowering criteria. Increasing the rate of reinforcement can help you to keep your pet’s focus around environmental distractions. As an example, if your dog is walking with a loose leash next to you on a quiet street and you are able to mark and reinforce that behavior only once every twenty to thirty steps; when walking your dog in a new environment with more distractions, you may need to temporarily lower that criteria to reinforcing every few steps and building back up to higher criteria.
Increase The Value Of Reinforcement
Remember, when teaching by choice, animals will make a decision based upon which choice will get them the greatest value. Knowing your pet’s Awesome List is so important, and that changes. Do not try to compete against something your pet REALLY wants unless you stack the odds in your favor. (And remember, those distractions can actually be used as reinforcers too!) You can also use play as a reinforcer, such as tugging. A dog who is fully engaged in a game of tug or chasing a Frisbee is a dog that is not fully engaged in noticing the person walking by. (Please note that if your dog is fearful and reactive to stimulus, you may want to work with a positive trainer to help teach your dog a new association with that aversive stimulus.)
Practice, Practice, Practice
There really is no quick fix to teaching solid behaviors around distractions. Consistent training with much practice in a variety of settings with valued reinforcement, accurate marking of behavior, and smart trainer decisions about when to raise and lower behavior criteria will get you there.