Six Tips To Use Distractions In Dog Training

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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.

dog training tips for using distractionsThe 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:

Add distance

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.


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  1. great article! I am actually guilty of something you mentioned. I had looked on the web and found several blogs like this and some good free ebooks and decided it was time to train charlie (my 1 year old lab).

    I could of went to a trainer but honestly… That stuff is expensive and I would rather him learn the commands from me. I started out following the basic guides and stuff I had learned but it just seemed… hard? Charlie didn’t seem to improve much and I got frustrated quickly…

    Thats the first thing I did that you mention lol. We practiced a few times but when he wasn’t learning right off the bat I got frustrated and didn’t want to continue. Looking back and after I took a slight break with it, its completely irrational to think he could of changed in under a month… He even improved but I didn’t give him enough time to fully understand what was going on and what I was expecting from him.

    A few months later I tried again and finally he was improving and improving. I could get him to sit on command and follow my basic commands. Naturally I was happy so I decided to take him to the local dog park. He never got along with dogs but silly me assumed now he was trained and would listen to me. You are completely right…. Just because he was listening to me at home did NOT change a thing about the dog park. As soon as he saw another dog he lost his mind and tried to attack and chase any dog he saw. It was a nightmare.

    After even more practice and changing up the training a bit from information I found here and on other blogs and books I was able to FINALLY get charlie to not chase anyone and mind me. The first trip back was hard but I just kept increasing he rate of reinforcement and playing with him and it distracted him enough to not want to chase the other dogs. Now he sees them as a playmates but is no longer distracted or bothered by watching the other dogs run around. I can even have him sit next to me without holding his leash and he won’t run away. Its amazing how people like you, supplying this kind of information, are able to help people like me.

    Is it harder then just taking your dog to a trainer? Of course it is but the satisfaction you get by following information like this is beyond worth it.

    Thank you for the article and I hope my story helps people continue and not give up like I almost did. Don’t quit. Just follow sound advice like this and your dog will go from a couch peeing pillow ripping nightmare to a well behaved obedient dog. I guarantee it.

    Thanks again lisa! I couldn’t of changed charlie without people like you! 🙂

    • Lisa Desatnik says:

      Hi Rachel, I am glad that my posts are helpful to you. Great for you on you and Charlie’s success! By giving him such a huge value consequence for focus on you and sitting by your side, he is choosing that behavior. When given a choice, animals will always choose to do what gets them the highest value. Way to go!