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I've come to realize that there are two main types of people who try to train dogs. Those who are determined to blame something external for their lack of success - be it breed: "he's a terrier, when he's hunting, he'll never listen", the individual dog - "he's stubborn - no one could train him!" or the environment and its distractions - "oh, as soon as he sees a squirrel, he goes deaf." Then there are those who rise above the excuses and stereotypes and put in the work necessary. Guess who ends up with a dog who listens and who ends up sounding like a broken record spitting out the same tired excuses?
We opened our doors in 1982 and have seen more than 80,000 dogs in those years. I'm not stretching the truth at all when I say every single one of those dogs were trainable. Some were pretty easy dogs and others made us think far outside the box to get results, but they were ALL trainable - every single one of them. Distractions are part of life - you can either loathe them and try to avoid them at all costs, blame them for your dog's lack of listening skills or embrace them and use them to teach your dog how to listen despite their presence.
Use Them as Reward
My youngest Toller, Ned, is a true water dog. He loves swimming, wading, running through, grabbing, splashing... you get the picture. He sees water, even a puddle, and he NEEDS to interact with it. As I was training his recall, water presented our greatest challenge as his biggest distraction. His desire to be in water is exponentially more drawing than anything I could ever offer him in terms of food or toys or any of the other rewards I rely on, but by 6 months of age, Ned had a wonderful recall around water, from water, through water and out of any water. I am the personality type that doesn't give up - I'm the stubborn one and far too much so to easily admit defeat. I'm also in the lucky position to know that I don't have to. I know that where there is a will, there is a way. I've not sat by and listened to the stereotypes and falsities that suggest there are limitations on my dog's listening ability. When I'm faced with a challenge in my dog training, I figure out a way to work through it! So rather than accept that Ned would not come when called if there was water in sight, I used a release to water as his reward for listening around water.
During his training, I knew I needed to control his ability to get to the water so he wouldn't just self-reward by jumping in the water whenever he wanted to - management was a key factor in building success. That meant I had to be diligent about keeping him on leash around any and all water. I also started around an easy body of water that was small enough that I could use a leash or long line to collect Ned if he had trouble responding as I wanted or tried to remain in the water longer than I wanted him to.
To start, we played games by the water - simple things like a sit. The leash enabled me to stop Ned from jumping in the water on his own so I could control the reinforcement. As soon as Ned's butt touched the ground, I would mark it with 'yes' and tell him - 'go swim' to release him to the water. I would let him play for a few seconds or play with him for a few seconds and then remove him from the water to start again. Initially, once in the water, he was content to ignore me calling him, but I was insistent and because I had set up the scene to work in my favour by having a leash on him, he really had no choice but to come out of the water to join me. Once he was out, the party was on again. Again, we would do something simple, like a quick trick or a sit and then as his reward I would release him to the water again.
We gradually added harder skills and we worked especially hard on response to name and come around any and all water and often, his reward for coming around water was a release to the water. He caught on quickly to the idea that I was his access to water and he needed to do what I wanted in order to get what he wanted: WATER JOY!
This is something you can use with a dog who loves to visit people, loves to sniff the ground, loves to play with other dogs, loves to... FILL-IN-THE-BLANK! Anything that your dog finds self rewarding can be used as a reward as long as you set it up so that you can control it. Remember - where there's a will, there's a way!
Use Them to Challenge Your Training
While we always want to start in a quiet environment when teaching a new skill, to truly train a dog, you need to use of distractions. Dogs need to learn how to listen in the face of distractions, whatever they may be. After you've taught a new skill and your dog is showing good understanding, it's time to add in distractions and continue to build your dog's ability to listen regardless of what's happening around them.
Now don't get me wrong, you're not going from a quiet room to a busy park. There needs to be some in between work to build to the point where your dog will listen anytime, anywhere. The nice thing about training with the use of distractions is that you can take your time and control the distractions. For example, if your dog loves people, you can introduce people to your training environment at a rate that suits your dog's learning. You might start with the other people in your home, who are not likely to be novel or exciting. Say you're working on your dog's response to name, as an example. You might start with an empty room to warm up, then invite your spouse into the area. When your dog is distracted by them walking in, call your dog's name. They're very likely to have success, in which case you can reward heavily and then try again with your spouse closer. Next, you might bring a second person into the room or go outdoors with a person to keep practising. Use whatever distractions you can throw into your training in an incremental way to help your dog understand that the expectations are the same regardless of what might catch their attention.
Something wonderful about this process and dogs in general is that they are honest creatures - if you are moving too quickly, they'll let you know as you will see your success rate slipping. Listen to them! I highly recommend keeping a training journal to make quick notes about your success rate so you can plan and build on your dog's abilities.
As always, Happy Training!