Dogs are very much like humans in the respect that they have their strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes situations and feelings can be overwhelming.
We need to be fair and take this into consideration when we are training.
Is Your Dog Afraid?
Some dogs are unflappable. Nothing will put them off or phase them when it comes to focusing on the task at hand, but in our experience, those dogs are few and far between. The vast majority of dogs have a hard time contending with distractions. Some dogs will also be overwhelmed or stressed by certain situations. For example, if you have a dog who is nervous of kids, asking them to focus on you at a playground is likely going to be far too much for that dog. Asking them to ignore the source of their fears will not help your efforts. It will likely make your relationship harder to maintain because they won’t learn to trust that you’ll keep them safe. Think about yourself – if you were frightened of spiders and someone put you in a room with several, asking you to ignore the source of your fear and focus solely on them – how would you feel?
Training Your Dog Through Fear
A much better way to desensitize you would be to put you in a room with one spider a good distance away. Allow the spider to exist while allowing you keep an eye on it to make sure it is not going to cause you any harm. In this scenario, if you looked away briefly and noted that upon returning your focus to the spider it hadn’t moved or caused you any greater threat, you would soon start to relax about being in a room with something you fear.
Now back to the dog – if he is nervous of children, the best thing you can do is avoid situations that may overwhelm him. Introducing children individually, at a distance and with positive associations is a much better way to make a dog comfortable with kids. In addition, when you are training, pick areas far away from children. We don’t suggest you avoid distractions, rather that you don’t put your dog in a situation where you know they will be overwhelmed and have limited success.
Training Your Dog Through Distractions
The same can be said of distractions. If you have a dog that loves children, they will have a hard time focusing on anything but, and you will have limited success when there are children playing nearby. In a perfect world, start with one child quietly sitting at a distance. Once you have established a strong history of rewards for success ignoring the child, you might add another quiet child or move closer to the child. Success will depend on acclimation. Slowly adding in more of the distraction will help your dog understand how to focus.
Finally, be clear for your dog! There will likely be times they are allowed to focus on and enjoy children. Give them clear permission to do so. A simple release command will go a long way to helping them understand when they can and can’t focus on the children will solidify these concepts for both you and your dog.
Dogs are Honest Creatures!
Dogs are very honest creatures. If you take the time to properly acclimate them to outside stimulus, they will learn to ignore distractions. If you skip this step, they will likely have a hard time making good choices in the face of distractions. Dogs are amazing creatures and deserve fair planning, patience and kindness in their learning.