Dog Training: What Are Distractions?

When you and your dog go for a walk, do squirrels, other dogs, butterflies, or even trash on the ground grab his attention?

These distractions are a part of your dog’s life and can cause problems when your dog is so focused on the distraction that he’s ignoring you or putting himself in danger. Just as we might get into trouble by looking at our phone while driving, your dog can get into trouble if he ignores your call for him to come to you while he’s focused on the squirrel in the park. Even though distractions are a part of life, let’s take a look at them and then figure out how to work around them.

Distractions Vary from Dog to Dog

My youngest dog, Bones, an English Shepherd, is unfazed by most things. He has excellent natural concentration skills and I started working with him to focus those skills when he was a puppy and continued that training on into adulthood. However, when my oldest dog, Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, was a puppy, he was easily distracted. He would look away from me to watch a butterfly flit past. He’d howl with the fire truck’s siren and he was particularly interested in those wonderful smells in the grass. Tennis balls, flying discs and treats were also great distractions.

Other dogs will be distracted by other things. At home, the family cat can be a distraction or the overflowing kitchen trash can. Outside, another dog, a kid on a skateboard or a motorcycle driving by can garner your dog’s attention. A friend’s Jack Russell Terrier is totally focused on lizards. Whether something is a distraction depends on your dog at that moment and on that day.

Low, High and Over the Top Distractions

Distractions are not equal. For Bashir, who is going to be 12 years old later this year, food is still a big distraction. He’s learned self control and won’t steal food off the table, coffee table or from the trash can; however, if there is food on the floor, that’s a huge distraction. My youngest dog, Bones, isn’t distracted by food much at all. So where food is a high level distraction for Bashir, it’s a low level distraction for Bones. Classifying a distraction might seem to be something that makes the training process more complicated but it actually will help you in the long run. By knowing what upsets your dog’s concentration the least (or the most), you can figure out what to use as a distraction during any given training session, how to use it and when.

A low level distraction is something that gets your dog’s attention but you can, with training and practice, get him focused on you again without too much trouble. For example, if training in a class, the treats another dog owner has might be a low level distraction to your own dog.

A higher level distraction is one that has so much of your dog’s attention that you need to work harder to get his attention back. Your dog may turn his back to you to stare at the distraction, may ignore your request for his attention or a treat you offer as a lure to focus his attention back on you. A high level distraction for many dogs could be picnickers and their picnic lunch in the grass at the park as you walk past.

Over the top distractions are those things that send your dog into a time and place where he’s no longer thinking. My friend’s Jack Russell, the one who is fascinated by lizards, goes over the top if a possum is in their back yard. He turns into a quivering, shaking, yowling mess. All his instincts are telling him he must hunt that animal. If my friend were to talk to him, it wouldn’t make any difference; he’s that overstimulated. The only thing she can do is pick him up and remove him from that window where he can see the possum. Other dogs can become overstimulated by food, kids playing, other dogs and animals or vehicles with sirens on. Then again, for some dogs, there is nothing that is so distracting that they’ll go over the top.

©istockphoto/Prensis

©istockphoto/Prensis

Know Your Dog’s Distractions

It’s important to know what distracts your dog because this can aid the training process. As you live with your dog, mentally note what things catch his attention and at what level. For example, perhaps your cat’s canned fish-flavored food really got your dog’s nose going, so much so that he followed you as you fed the cat. However, when you told him to ignore the cat food, he did and followed you when you walked away. That could be labeled a low level distraction. When guests came over, though, they were a high level distraction because he jumped on them, tried to crawl into their laps and he appeared to not hear you when you called him.

Make the same mental notes when you and your dog are outside, either playing, training or walking.

Training With Distractions

If you and your dog are already in a dog training class, you’ve learned to teach your dog simple exercises first, such as sit and hold still for a few seconds until released. With the distractions of the class—people, other dogs, treats and a new location—these simple exercises are more than enough to start. Then, as you help your dog succeed at these, you will be able to teach additional exercises with these same distractions. For many dogs, as they progress through the exercises, the distractions will no longer matter and so will no longer be considered distractions.

As you practice those same exercises during the week between classes, you’ll want to practice with few or low level distractions initially so that your dog can focus on you and learn. When he’s mastered an exercise, then you can gradually increase the distractions. For example, to use the sit and wait for the release exercise, you would first practice at home in a quiet room. Then you could practice in a room with more low level distractions, then the kitchen when dinner is being prepared, then out in the back yard, then in the front yard, then on walks in the local park.

There is no set time for mastering distractions. Every dog will progress, have some setbacks and then progress again at his own pace. Therefore, if your dog is having difficulties ignoring distractions in the front yard, for example, go back to the back yard, practice a few times there again, then later go out front again. Don’t ask your dog to deal with high level distractions when he’s having a hard time with lower level ones.

Managing a Meltdown

Sometimes life gets in the way and training your dog just isn’t going to happen. Perhaps you’ve invited guests over to your home and your dog was fine for the first two or three people, but as more people arrived, your dog lost his mind and forgot his manners. At this point, simply put him in his crate in a back room with a food dispensing toy to let out some energy. The next time guests come over, let him greet the first guests and put him away before he becomes overstimulated.

Life is Full of Distractions

Anything can be a distraction. However, if I ask them to do something, I want their attention and compliance. After all, I’m responsible for their safety.

Your goal for your dog is similar. Your dog can sniff the grass, watch the butterfly or chase a squirrel when the time and place is appropriate, but when you wish to have his attention, ideally, you can ask him to ignore those distractions and focus on you.

Meet the Author: Liz Palika

Liz Palika is a Certified Dog Trainer, Certified Animal Behavior Consultant, and the co-owner of Kindred Spirits Dog Training in Vista, CA. Liz is also an award-winning author and writer specializing in pets. She writes about cats, cat behavior and health, dogs, dog behavior and health, living with pets, and pet nutrition. Liz’s works have been recognized with many awards, but her most recent book, “Idiot’s Guides: Dog Training” (Penguin Books, 2014) recently won the Best Nonfiction book category in the San Diego Book Writing competition. Liz shares her home with two dogs; Bashir, an Australian Shepherd, and Bones, an English Shepherd. Three cats, Spock, Scottie, and Kirk, provide motivation for her articles about cats. And yes, she is a Star Trek fan. For more information go to www.kindredspiritsk9.com.

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