Written By: Erin Wigginton, CPDT-KA
Have you ever wondered why your dog is an obedience rock star at home or in her group class but if you try to take her to the dog park or Petco she acts like she’s never heard “come” or “sit” before in her life? It’s the same story for dog owners everywhere and I hear “She really does KNOW how to (fill in the blank).” My response is always the same; “I know. I believe you. But to her, this context is so different that it’s too hard for her to follow instruction. Context matters and contextual changes that seem minute to us can make a world of difference to your dog.” She’s not being stubborn. She’s being a dog.
Dogs are incredibly observant creatures. They constantly notice (and are distracted by) things that we take completely for granted. The level of distraction that your dog faces with every outing is inversely related to how much practice he’s had around those distractions. Simply stated, the more practice your dog has in a certain context the less distracted he’ll be over time. It’s a process of desensitization. Consider the following. How many times a week do you leave your house? Where do you go? What do you encounter and experience? Now consider how many times in that same week your dog leaves your house. What does he experience? Who or what does he encounter? It’s probably a safe bet that you spend considerably more time outside your home than does your dog. It stands to reason, then, that everything (or at least most everything) you typically encounter are things that haven’t been novel to you in quite some time. Nothing is new or scary or exciting. For most dogs it is exactly the opposite. EVERYTHING is new and exciting…or scary and too much of either of those emotions (excitement or fear) will temporarily negate any training skills you’ve taught your dog. Add to that the fact that your dog isn’t just seeing and hearing all these distractions but he’s smelling all of them too and you’ve got a tough situation for us as dog owners.
So what do we do with that? How do we overcome it? The same way you overcame it as a child or young adult…exposure and practice. Now, I’ve written about socialization and fear periods in dogs and how those can shape the long-term behavioral health of dogs. Here and now I’m suggesting tips for behaviorally healthy dogs, young and old, whose owners simply want better reliability in different situations. If your dog if fearful (cowers, trembles, won’t take food, etc.) of many (or any) new situations or people or if your dog is reactive (barking, lunging, etc.) in new situations it’s time to call a professional for help. Never take a fearful or reactive dog into a situation which is likely to evoke a negative response without professional guidance.
For those fortunate folks out there with happy, confident dogs I offer this advice: practice, rest, repeat.
Practice: Get your dog out into different situations around new and interesting stuff. Figure out what your dog finds the most interesting or distracting. Write a list if there are more than a few. Then tackle the list one thing at a time. At first, distance is your friend. If your dog finds other dogs distracting, ask friends to help you with their dogs. Go for walks together but keep enough distance between your dog and your friend’s dog that your dog will still comply when asked for simple cues like “sit” or “wait”. I also really like using dog parks for this kind of practice. The trick is to keep your dog outside the fence. The fence keeps the other dogs from getting closer than you want them to, meaning you can use distance to your great advantage while still having a great opportunity to practice basic skills with your dog. When your dog is as compliant as you’d like him to be you can decrease the distance between him and the distraction and keep practicing. During this process I use food rewards even if I’ve replaced food with other rewards at home because I’m asking more of my dog in these new contexts and I need him to understand what I want and that it’s worth it to comply. If you use a clicker, that’s even better.
Rest: Always set a time limit (I usually recommend no more than 10 minutes) for practicing before you take a break. Taking a break will help your dog (and you) lower your stress level and perform better in the long run. A break can be as little a 2 minutes or as long as you need it to be. Don’t push your dog or yourself to a point of frustration. You want training to be fun and your relationship with your dog to remain strong. Show your dog that he can trust you to be fair in your expectations without getting frustrated with him for getting excited to see that new goldendoodle or the new neighbor.
Repeat: Practice often, two or three times a week if you can. The St. Louis area has a long list of dog parks and dog-friendly businesses where you can practice around all sorts of distractions. Some of my favorites are:
It takes time and practice to teach a dog to be compliant in many different situations but it IS possible! Get out there and practice with your dog. Put in the time and effort. I promise you’ll be glad you did!