“Help! My dog sees another dog/squirrel/cat/person and all of his training goes out the window!”
Does your dog listen perfectly when there are no distractions, but once you add in anything new and shiny all that training goes right out the window? No worries, you are not alone, and your dog is not trying to thwart your efforts! This is probably one of the most common complaints I get from my clients, and it’s one that is pretty easily remedied if you’re willing to be consistent and put in a little work.
The fact of the matter is that dogs are not great at generalizing behaviors to different contexts. What this means is that even though your dog may ‘know’ sit and be able to respond in one context or environment, it doesn’t mean he will be able to do that everywhere else. A common example of this is when an owner asks their dog to “sit” at their side while walking, and the dog either looks at the owner like he just grew six heads or automatically re-orients to the front of them, because that’s where “sit” is supposed to happen for reinforcement. (For more information on how to tell if your dog truly “knows” sit regardless of context, check out: http://www.dogstardaily.com/training/sit-test)
Additionally, when you try to transfer ‘known’ behaviors to more exciting environments, we are introducing what are called ‘competing motivators’ to the dog’s environment, so the issue becomes “If my dog is refusing to come when called at the dog park, it’s probably because what I am offering is simply not more reinforcing than play with other dogs”. It’s not your dog being willfully disobedient, or spiteful, or dominant. It’s simply your dog making a decision about what he’d rather do!
This is why a process known as “proofing”exists in training. Once our dogs are performing the behavior reliably in a low distraction, familiar environment, we begin asking our dog for the behavior in new places with distractions that get more difficult gradually. So, you have an idea of why your dog may not be listening to you in the presence of distractions or in a new context, but how do we fix it?
Just because your dog knows “come” in the house and backyard doesn’t mean he’s going to be able to do it at the park yet! You have to lay down a really solid foundation for your dog first, and then increase the difficulty in tiny steps to proof the behavior. Teaching your dog “come” indoors is like teaching a kindergartener the ABCs, it’s just the beginning. Asking your dog to “come” in a high distraction environment after only practicing indoors is similar to asking a kindergartener to write your PhD dissertation. It’s probably not going to end the way you want it to!
The Premack principle states that a more likely behavior can be used to reinforce a less likely behavior. This is a great option to use when your dog is totally disinterested in food around something distracting that they want to get to (i.e. other dogs or prey animals). For my dog Regis, he learned that he can chase squirrels up trees (the more likely behavior) only if he can either walk nicely next to me to get there or check in with me before hand (both less likely behaviors). It was only when I started using the Premack principle with Regis that I was able to teach him how to walk nicely on leash.
Know your dog (and their competing motivators)!
Your dog will find certain distractions more exciting than others, and just because one dog can’t focus around other dogs doesn’t mean that will be your dog’s number one distraction. My dog, who is fearful of strange dogs, doesn’t want to go say hello at all to unfamiliar dogs and so is able to focus, but when he smells a squirrel or rabbit he has more difficulty concentrating. Meanwhile, I walk a lab who literally doesn’t blink twice when he sees a squirrel dart out three feet in front of him, but wants nothing more than to say hello to strange people on leash. (FYI, if you have an over-eager greeter, using the Premack principle to train them that they can “say hello” if they show calm behavior first works like a charm!)
Distance is your friend
Anytime we’re working with a stimulus that is exciting to a dog, whether it’s because they want to say hi, scare the thing away, or eat the thing, if your dog is over-reacting (barking, lunging, whining, generally “freaking out”) the number one thing you need to do is create distance. In the case of a scaredy dog, that extra distance allows the dog to feel safer and thus think more clearly. For a dog that wants to say hello or chase a prey animal, I imagine the extra distance makes them pause to think “the thing I want to get to is so far away, there’s no point in trying, especially since my human has treats!” Of course, this is my own speculation since I can’t read my dog’s mind, but regardless of the situation, if your dog is already too far gone to focus or concentrate, that’s a sign to you to increase distance.
With a little effort and planning, you can have a dog that listens to you in the face of distractions. Just keep your training short, positive, and successful, and you’ll have a dog that’s happy to comply with what you’re asking!