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One of the most common things I hear from dog owners is ‘His recall/stay/lead walking is brilliant unless there are distractions’!

So in actual fact it’s not brilliant at all then…?! The text book definition of an animal/trainer having a behaviour successfully “on cue” is when the animal in question performs the behaviour when asked (cued) no matter what the circumstances or distraction. And technically he should also never perform the said behaviour without that cue.

If you’ve worked with me, you’ll know that of course I would never call someone out like that. Not least because I’m also human and know perfectly well that no matter how well I think I’ve trained something, my dogs will find the gap I missed! We’ve all been in that situation of the dog being able to perform every trick brilliantly in the living room or puppy class and responding beautifully in the garden. But as soon as someone else is there to see it, or the neighbour’s cat strolls along the top of the wall, your increasingly desperate cues fall on deaf ears.

In reality, training the dog to respond to a cue with no distractions is ‘the easy bit’ and only the first step on the journey, but often it’s the point most of us stop consistently training that behaviour and move onto something new and shiny. I’m definitely guilty as charged on that one!

So what should you do to train your dog to respond to you, regardless of distractions?

Firstly, we need to consider the building blocks that affect the learning and performance of the behaviour – the ‘ABC’

  • A are the ‘Antecedents’. That means everything that comes before the behaviour. What else is in the environment, what you are doing, what the dog is doing, how he feels, what has happened earlier that day, and so on.
  • B is the Behaviour itself, performed by the dog in that context with that set of antecedents.
  • C is the Consequence. What happens as a result of the animal performing that particular behaviour, when it follows that specific set of antecedents.

We cannot directly change the behaviour itself, that is the dog’s domain, based on his learning experience. But what we can do is manipulate or in some way alter the A’s and the C’s. That is fundamentally what training is. Influencing what comes before and after a behaviour in order to direct the dog’s learning. Cool, huh?

I will address what and how we can make changes to the antecedent ‘picture’ in Part 3 of this blog series. (Watch this space!)

For now, let’s start ‘at the end’ and think about what we can do to change the consequences as a result of a behaviour to improve your dog’s ability to respond to your requests even in the face of distractions.

1. Increase the reward history

If the dog does 'something' and that something aka behaviour leads to a good outcome for the dog e.g. a tasty treat is given, a scary person moves away; then it’s quite likely that he will perform that behaviour again in similar circumstances in the future. If you see that the dog sits more often when asked as a result of feeding a tasty treat each time, then you know that the action of sitting has been reinforced. The more times the dog achieves that outcome, the more likely he is to keep doing that behaviour in those circumstances.

Simply put, the more you reward something you like, the more the chances of the dog performing that desirable behaviour go up when compared with other choices he might make.

2. Ensure the consequence is ‘motivating’ in that moment

Motivation is not a fixed thing. It depends on the time and the place.

Dogs are motivated to perform behaviours for different reasons – and that motivation changes depending on the circumstances. For example, a dog might very happily perform his trick ‘spin’ for a gravy bone in the living room when he is feeling safe in a familiar environment. But ask him to ‘spin’ in the park when a small child is screaming nearby, and his motivation might just be the reward of 'escape', in which case he’s more likely to choose to walk away.

Equally the opportunity for a spaniel to go and sniff in the bushes might be a far more motivating reward than a bit of dry biscuit – so you may have no chance getting him to respond to his recall, without working through more training.

3. Adjust the criteria for success to the circumstances

In other words, consider what the dog has to do in order to earn his reward. As changes in the environment or distractions appear – you probably shouldn't expect the dog to perform the behaviour to the same standard as he does in the living room at home. Not least because of those competing motivations.

By way of example, I like to train my dogs a hand target, where they touch my hand with their nose. I gradually increase duration i.e. the length of time the dog holds his nose in place before the reward appears. Loki is able to sustain this for a good 30 seconds now, even when I am doing distracting things like waving a ball above his head with the other hand. However, when I recently tried to work with the distractions presented in the supermarket carpark, he could barely hold his touch at all. Why? Because he was more motivated by his own safety and wellbeing in that moment. He needed to check out that the noises around him were not things that were about to eat him. (Or possibly people having fun without him!)

This was a useful gauge of his capacity to cope with that level of distraction and ability to engage with me. By adjusting the criteria for success right back to simply ‘any attempt to touch my hand’ I was able to get a little bit of focus on me in an otherwise distracting environment. I  'banked' 4 or 5 positive outcomes, thereby building a reward history in a distracting environment that I would never have achieved had I waited for the 30 second mark.

4. Choose rewards to suit your dog

Think about your individual dog and what he likes i.e. what does he find rewarding?

The value of a reward is really judged by the dog at the time and is tied in with their motivations in those circumstances.

This is such an important part of training, and especially developing a strong behaviour that is resistant to distractions! Which is why my next post in this mini-series is all about the value of rewards...

You can read Part 2: Dogs who won't take treats, here!

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