Do you feel like your training is failing?

The training at home is brilliant, but everything falls apart as soon as you step out the door. So many people believe because their dog can do something in the home, they are good to go and the dog should be able to do it anywhere.

You’ll be happy to know that your training isn’t failing. You’ve just missed a piece of it. A very important piece. And by thinking your dog is trained or ready to go, placed an unrealistic expectation on them.

Teaching your dog what the behaviour is and how to do it is the first step of training. Doing this step at home, no matter where you plan to use the skill is ultimately essential for your initial success. Why? Because it is a familiar, low-distraction environment where your dog will find it easier to focus and stay calm.

But here’s the rub. If you don’t prepare your dog to deal with real life with the excitement and distractions that happen, your training will fall short. And your dog won’t be successful.

Now you may be asking if you can’t get your dog to do anything, not even look at you when you’re outside, how are you expected to train there? That’s a great question! There’s a key to successful training and being able to use those skills in the places and situations where you need them. It is understanding what distracts your dog and teaching them how to cope with these things.

Depending on the skill you are teaching and the distraction your dog has to deal with, the exact training will vary. Your dog’s existing skills, attitude towards training and age will also be factors. But, the overall process and how to work through it will follow the same structure.

Build the quality of the skill

Does your dog truly understand the skill or behaviour?

Let’s consider the simple behaviour SIT. Can you ask for a SIT in your home when nothing exciting is happening, and your dog does it? I imagine most of you would say yes. What about if you asked while sitting, on the floor, with your back turned, or while tying your shoelaces. Try it.

You may find that your dog isn’t as solid with SIT as you may have thought.

Identify your dog’s distractions

As obvious a step as this is, it is often not given the consideration it deserves. Teaching your dog to be calm and responsive in the face of distractions is a nuanced process. Identifying their Achilles Heel is an excellent first step, but there is much more to consider before working on a trigger.

Let’s use another example. Say your dog can’t control themself when a kid on a bike goes by. There are many different stimuli your dog is experiencing with this one trigger.

Your dog can see it. How can it move so fast? And what are those weird round things they are moving on?

They can hear it. Kids can be loud and erratic in their vocalizations. And the bike may also add another layer of stimuli with the whir of tires and clanking of gears.

Can they smell it? They may feel the rush of wind and scent as the bike passes if it’s close enough.

And it’s MOVING!! This is a game-changer for most dogs.

And all of these will be intensified depending on the distance of the trigger from your dog.

Wow! That’s a whole lot of stuff to consider. Why should you care? Because by recognizing the various aspects of a given trigger, you can control its intensity and keep your dog under threshold. This makes for excellent training and will get you to where you want to be more quickly.

Desensitize your dog to the trigger

Before actually beginning skill training around the trigger, it helps to do a bit of conditioning, so your dog is less excitable. Whether your dog is reactive, fearful or over-excited, focusing on their emotions before worrying about what you want them to do, is a step that will improve success and the ease of training.

In this step, training of the skill itself does not take place. Instead, fun conditioning activities occur to help build a great association.

Introduce the concept of distractions

It may feel like the fastest way to get to your goal is to work on the real-life distractions and situations that your dog will face. This approach often does not work (as you have experienced) because your dog will be far beyond their ability to focus and cope. 

Set your dog up for success by creating controllable distractions in the home while training. Doing so will allow you to:

  • choose and control the difficulty of the distraction
  • adjust the distraction as necessary
  • keep your dog successful as you move through the training
  • become proficient before introducing real-life distractions

Let’s return to the bike example. If you understand the components of that trigger and break them down to keep your dog under threshold, you could successfully introduce the bike into training as your first step. A super preliminary step is to practice the skill with things that provide the same types of stimuli as the bike experience. 

  • use an app on your phone to play kid noises 
  • bring a toy into the training area
  • add movement to the toy 

By helping your dog learn to perform the skill in the home with these setups, the training with the actual trigger will be more straightforward.

Work with the trigger

Once your dog has been conditioned to the trigger, the actual skill training can begin. This is where your understanding of breaking apart the various stimuli and presenting them appropriately comes into play.

Focusing on one aspect of the trigger and keeping exposure at an appropriate level will keep your dog comfortable and on track.

Here are some of the steps in the process with the bike example:

  • stationary bike resting against an object (no child present) 
  • adult standing next to the bike
  • adult walking the bike calmly
  • adult riding the bike
  • kid quietly walking the bike
  • kid riding the bike slowly and quietly

These are only a few of the potential steps. How far the bike moves, how quickly it moves and how close it also need to be factored into the training. 

It may seem like this is a lot of work, but this part of the training can be a lot of fun. It allows you to be creative while figuring out how to split up the steps and reduce the intensity of the exposure. It’s also super rewarding as you watch your dog work through the steps with you. 

Turn the distraction into a reinforcement

If you are familiar with positive reinforcement training, you will already know that this training process will involve treats or food. But did you know that you can actually turn that trigger into part of the reinforcement process? That’s right! If your dog likes or wants that trigger, and it is safe and appropriate for them to interact with it, then you can use that to your advantage. Offering real-life reinforcers is a powerful way to boost the value of performing a behaviour.

Our bike example isn’t probably one we want to do this with, as chasing or catching bikes or kids isn’t something to encourage. However, there are lots of other triggers that we can use to this end.

Whew! So it may feel like there are an overwhelming number of considerations here. It is a multi-faceted process for sure. But, the good news is that learning how to handle triggers and create great training plans are skills that you will love and use throughout your dog’s life. And if you need a hand, you know who to call 🙂