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Thought you had your dog trained to stay when a squirrel came by, and off they ran? Distractions are fun and exciting for your dog, but they can cause them to forget about you and your commands in favor of something more exciting. And while you can’t blame your dog for being a dog in their interest over critters, food or toys, you still want them to listen to you.
With a consistent method, you can help your dog learn to overcome their instincts when distractions arise and look to you for direction in any situation. In this guide, we’ll show you how. With some simple steps, you can get your dog’s attention no matter what’s happening around them.
If you want to train your dog to ignore distractions, what you are really training them to do is to focus on you- no matter if there are noises, squirrels, cars or their favorite toy in sight. That means that obeying your command must be more rewarding than the distraction itself so that it is worth it to your dog to do what you ask.
First, you’ll need to reward a singular focus on you, and continue to make that focus a positive experience your pup will want to repeat, usually with rewards. Then, you’ll need to reinforce that focus amidst all the distractions that can grab your dog’s attention. Start simply with a "stay" command near a favorite toy, increasing the distractions once each one can still be ignored before moving onto the next. After your dog is getting the hang of it, you can try other commands and/or bigger distractions.
Some factors to consider are the ease of the task you are asking of them, their excitement level over the distraction and their motivation to listen to you. Often, you will need to create as much distance between the distraction and your dog as is needed to get their attention at the start, and provide rewards that are high value enough to make their focus on you worth it to them. As for the task, that’s why you need to keep it simple. If you can’t maintain a sit or stay even with the distraction far away and a piece of roast chicken in your hand, start smaller with a reward for when your dog breaks their focus from the distraction to look at you. Then, move on from there.
Another thing to note is that while you are training to ignore distractions, you should not practice duration and distance. For example, if you are using a stay command with a toy as the distraction, don’t ask for a long stay of several minutes, or walk away from your dog during the stay. Keep the focus on keeping your dog’s attention in the midst of the distraction, and don’t add in duration or distance training too. You can add these in later once your dog has mastered ignoring distractions.
When getting ready to train your dog, be highly aware of the environment you wish to train in. You will want to start in a quieter, less distraction filled area where you can focus the training on one distraction at a time. A quiet yard when no one else is around or a room in the house that you’ve asked your family members to stay out of while you are training will work well. Never start your training in a busy place, like a dog park or city sidewalk.
Next, arm yourself with all the tools you’ll need, such as a leash, harness and collar if needed, and lots of treats! You may want to have multiple kinds of treats on hand, or some of a particularly high value to your dog like cheese or hunks of a favorite meat. Whatever treats you choose, be sure your dog likes them and wants them, so don’t just use their regular kibble.
Then, choose one easy distraction and an easy command, preferably one they’ve already mastered like a "sit" or "stay". The distraction could be a favorite toy that’s lying near you on the floor. Be patient and take into consideration any physical limitations or needs your dog may have.
You may decide to train your dog certain commands before you begin ignoring distraction training to make it simpler and easier for you both. While “sit,” “stay,” and “come” are all commands dogs should know, the “watch me” command can be incredibly helpful for this specific kind of training.
The Ignore the Distraction Method
Choose your work space
Choose a quiet environment with few to no distractions, and remove all the distractions from the area if possible.
Practice command without distraction
With high value treats that your dog loves, practice the command you wish to use without any distractions around, such as “sit.” Be sure to reward each sit with a treat.
Add a distraction
Set a favorite toy that easily distracts your dog on the ground a distance from your dog. Ask your dog to “sit”. When they obey the command, give them a treat.
If they go for the toy instead of sit, move the toy further away from your dog and reset. Give the “sit” command again, treating them if they obey, or moving the toy further away if they don’t. Once they obey the command several times, you can begin to move the toy closer.
Repeat with new distractions
Once your dog has mastered “sit” with a toy in view, move on to other distractions, such as someone at the door. Ask a family member or friend to come to the door while you are training your dog to “sit”. If they obey, give them a treat. If they are too distracted, move the dog a further distance from the door and repeat.
Move to busier location
Using the same principles, move the training to a busier location, such as in the yard. Using a toy, or the neighborhood squirrels, repeat the steps listed above to train your dog to focus and obey the “sit” command with each new distraction.
Reward and repeat
Continue to repeat the training through each new distraction, adding noisier or busier environments or bigger distractions. Be prepared to take some steps back as needed, and give your dog several sessions to master this training.
The Watch Me Method
Teach “Watch Me”
Teach your dog the “watch me” command to help move your dog’s focus away from the distraction to you.
Integrate “watch me” into training
In a quiet environment, begin training with The Ignore the Distraction Method. However, whenever your dog does not focus on you, give the command “watch me”. Once their eyes are on you, then give the “sit” command. Reward both obeyed commands during training.
Add a distraction
Set a favorite toy that easily distracts your dog on the ground a distance from your dog. Ask your dog to “sit”. When they obey the command, give them a reward. When they don’t, give the “watch me” command until they are focused on you, then give the “sit” command again.
Use “watch me” to interrupt focus
Continue your training as normal, using the “watch me” command only when your dog does not obey “sit” because their focus remains on the distraction.
Repeat with new distractions
Once your dog has mastered “sit” with a toy in view, move on to other distractions. Continue to ask for a “sit”, only using “watch me” when needed to regain your dog’s focus.
Maintaining focus in public
The “watch me” command is particularly useful in public when the world is much busier, noisier and filled to the brim with distractions. Practice “watch me” on its own several times in these environments to ensure your dog can snap their attention back to you, even if they get nervous or scared, rewarding each time. Add in your distraction training, and use “watch me” whenever needed.
The Premack Principle Method
Distraction as reward
Using the Premack Principle, which promotes using things your dog wants besides treats such as playing as the reward, repeat The Ignore Distractions Method with physical rewards rather than treats. In the case of training to ignore distractions, you can also use the distraction itself to reward them.
Discover your dog’s high value activities
Watch your dog and discover what distractions and activities they love most. Make a list of your dog’s favorite things to do, such as chase squirrels, play with a ball, or even get a brushing session.
Add a distraction
With the distraction in sight, such as their favorite ball near them on the ground or squirrels running in the yard, ask your dog to “sit”. When they obey the command, throw the ball or let them chase the squirrel.
Repeat and reward
If they go for the toy or squirrel instead of sit, move the toy further away from your dog or your dog further away from the squirrel, and reset. Give the “sit” command again, rewarding them with a ball toss, squirrel chase, or even a minute or two of brushing if they obey, or moving them further away if they don’t.
Repeat with new distractions
Move on to other distractions. Ask a family member or friend to come to the door while you are training your dog to “sit”. If they obey, allow them to greet the person at the door. If they are too distracted, move the dog a further distance from the door and repeat.
Repeat with busier environments
Continue to repeat the training through each new distraction, adding noisier or busier environments. In public, you may need to be a bit more creative with your dog’s physical rewards, such as greeting other dogs calmly, or having a favorite toy on hand to give them. You may also want to integrate treats as rewards at this point for an easier way to promote positive behavior.
By Kim Rain
Published: 12/30/2021, edited: 01/04/2022