I do not consider distraction training to be a unique stage of training; it is part of the overall process. Distraction training starts from the day I bring a puppy home, whether I wish to work on distractions or not. Regardless, there are periods in training where I start adding harder distractions consciously – Lyra is just entering that phase, though she’s been preparing for it for months.
The fact is, distractions exist in the world. For a young dog with high environmental interest like Lyra, a completely empty room is not distraction free. She has discovered the window, which opens out onto things to look at. She has discovered the floor, which offers opportunities to sniff. She listens to dogs barking in the distance and cars pulling up in the driveway. In short, the world is filled with distractions that I often cannot control.
Some dogs are highly sensitive to these environmental distractions and other dogs appear oblivious. Dogs with high interest in whatever rewards you may be offering are the most likely to ignore these uncontrolled distractions, because they are barely aware of them. They are focused on the food, toys or other attractive alternatives that you may be offering. Being “unaware” makes the trainer’s life easier, because both parties can focus on skillbuilding. On the other hand, being “unaware” means the dog is not learning how to ignore distractions or to function in spite of them, and owners do not develop the skills of training through them. When the food and toy rewards are no longer obvious and visible to the dog, the distractions suddenly loom larger than life, and it can be frustrating to deal with them.
I don’t consider one kind of dog or learning curve “better” than the other, but it does illustrate the point that training should be individualized for the dog, and many perceived benefits like high food drive may well have costs associated with them when the food goes away.
Dogs with high environmental awareness or relatively low drive need patience and time, even in the most simple environments. They will still learn, albeit a little slower. On the other hand, they are developing valuable practice at ignoring miscellaneous “noise” in the environment, so later distraction training may well be easier.
Lyra has high environmental awareness and modest food drive. For the first four months, she flipped in and out of work. She still does, though it’s not very common anymore. While the general direction has been towards better attention and focus, her developmental curve has been slower than most of my other dogs.
Today, the benefit of this developmental curve was driven home to me.
Lyra has started to ignore or walk away from more intense distractions in the environment, and I have learned how to manage her at different levels of engagement. Lyra knows that the worst thing that will happen when she checks out is that I’ll end the training session and put her back in the house. She also knows that I won’t beg or plead for her to work, beyond a simple request or two that she return to me.
My energy (high), plus my approval (obvious), plus our training history (fun), plus our relationship (valuable), plus a toy is a very powerful combination The alternative is Lyra alone with Lyra’s favorite toy on the training field. Lyra is self training to understand that while toys in the training area are interesting, they are nothing compared to what she gets when she works with me.
If she wants my approval, energy and 100% attention, she needs to give these same things back to me. My interaction mirrors hers. If I like what she is doing, I’m 100% there with her. If I don’t like what she is doing, I withdraw those qualities. And if she’s in the middle (finds a toy and tries to get me to interact on her terms), I’m supportive and kind, but I’m not the package deal.
If Lyra were ever punished for picking up a random toy instead of working for it, she would learn to “get around” me, waiting for opportunities when she could grab the toy and I could not stop her. In the obedience ring, this often shows up as excellent attention and work on leash or in heel position (where the owner can grab the dog) and a distinct correlation between distance from owner and loss of attention and control. I do not want to trial with a dog that I cannot trust reliably off leash and at a distance.
This method will not work if your dog does not value training time. Value comes through time working together in a positive manner, combining toys, food and fun. This method also will not work if it is hard for you to “let go” and allow your dog to make choices. If that describes your situation, work on those issues first.
In this video, distractions include sheep which are newly visible from the training yard. There is quite a lot of residual food smell (not food) on the ground from earlier training sessions with student dogs. There are several toys on the ground. Her favorite is the “frenzy’, the toy with a sheepskin top and many leather pieces hanging down. Her second favorite toy is the Leather Rag – one long solid piece. There is also a ball. There is a dumbbell that I use for retrieving but I have never used that as a toy, so she sees the dumbbell retrieve as a means to “earn” a toy. There is a platform which is also a means to a toy.
As the session begins, note that I allow Lyra to find all of the options on the field – I want her to be aware of what options exist, so that she can make choices. Watch my reactions to Lyra’s enthusiasm for the toys she finds – I’m neutral if she finds them and stays away, and slightly positive if she brings them to me. Watch the change in my demeanor as she gives up on the toys and begins to work for me.
Note that she leaves heeling once to bring me a ball (38 sec.). I don’t feed her decision with energy. She soon figures it out and then works 100% for me – no residual looking back at the ball or resentment to being asked to work.
When I ask for a retrieve (1:55 sec), she doesn’t’ even look at the ball as she goes by.
She finds a smell on the cement (2:15) and does not bring the ball back. I ignore her (don’t feed it with energy) and take her ball.
She then brings me her dumbbell (2:40). I will always acknowledge that positively but I don’t reward it with a toy because I did not ask for it.
For the next minute or so she wanders and sniffs. Clearly she has discovered smells she did not know about earlier. At her age, I simply ignore it. With a well trained adult who normally chooses work, I would have ended the session after requesting that the dog return and being ignored. Lyra is too young for me to worry about it, so I wait her out.
When she returns (3:45sec) you can see that she’s not so engaged anymore. My energy also drops until I bring out the toy, at which point she comes alive again. I mirror her energy once more. I had the option of rewarding her choice to return with a lot of energy, but I did not do so on this occasion.
She works nicely for awhile. Then at 5:50 sec she lays down to keep her toy and chew on it. When she realizes I’m disengaging, she drops the toy and looks to me for direction.
I ask her to heel holding her toy (6:25 sec). She can carry the toy or drop it; her choice. She does both. Then she heads for the platform because she thought I would ask for that behavior. That is NOT leaving work; it is a misunderstanding, so I simply encourage her to come back and heel.
I then send her to retrieve her dumbbell while holding her toy (7:10). After she makes a good choice, I end her lesson. The ability to leave a toy behind in order to work is an excellent barometer of where she is at with distractions – she’s getting strong!
There is no fight in Lyra’s training. No begging, arguments, dominance, fear or intimidation. I win by refusing to give energy to behaviors that I don’t want to see. It’s important that she try out self satisfying, so she can choose to remove that option from her repertoire of behaviors. Setting this foundation now will pay huge dividends later when I am working her at much higher levels of drive and expectation – notably in protection work and as her drives mature. The habit will be set; work with me or through me but never around me.
This video is unedited start to finish, so that you can see my various reactions to her choices.