Training with distractions is a great way to make sure a learned behavior will be performed on cue in a variety of situations. Dogs don’t automatically generalize learning. If you train your dog to sit in the living room next to the couch, he may not even generalize that behavior to the other side of the room, much less sit politely to greet a stranger in a noisy crowd or sit to allow a dog to pass on a narrow trail. If you want your dog to obey reliably no matter where you are, you will need to practice each behavior in a variety of situations.
Where Should I Train?
If you want a behavior to be reliable in a particular situation, you must train the behavior in that situation. To decide where to practice working with distractions, first decide what your goal is. If you decide that you would like your dog to lie down and stay calmly while you greet a friend at the park, train at the park. If you want your dog to pass other dogs at a pet store without pulling toward them, start by training the dog at the pet store.
But My Dog Misbehaves When Distractions Are Introduced!
So, you tried training in a situation with distractions, and suddenly found that you had a wiggling puppy behaving as if he’d never had a training session, rather than the well-behaved pooch you know and love? That’s normal, although some dogs take distractions in stride immediately.
If you start with a well-exercised dog who’s neither especially hungry nor especially full, and still don’t get any focus on the work you’re trying to do, back up a few steps. If your goal is to have the dog obey inside a crowded pet store, work in the parking lot. If your goal is the park, start with your front yard. Back up until you get to a place where your dog is just outside its comfort zone, yet still able to pay attention and learn.
A Helping Hand
If you have a friend who’s willing to help you train your dog, a helping hand can be invaluable in training with distractions. For example, you could have your friend walk toward you while you cue your dog to sit and stay. If the dog moves, your friend stops while you refocus your dog’s attention with a treat or toy. When the dog is calm again, your friend can move forward. When your friend reaches your dog and the dog remains seated and calm, you can give a release cue and the dog is rewarded with an opportunity to greet your friend and receive a treat.