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Diamonds in the Ruff

Coping with Distractions

Distractions come in many forms. They are most difficult for your dog when they occur in clusters. Rarely is your dog faced with one distraction at a time.


Let's see how many possible distractions we can list for just one specific situation:  taking your dog to practice in a grocery store parking lot.


People - men, women, young, old, babies, girls, boys, teenagers, different ethnicities, long hair, bald, facial hair, tall, short, fat, thin, transients, moms, dads, grandmas, business men. Numbers of people:  one or two vs. a crowd.


Clothing - hats, coats, helmets, noisy rustling or flapping clothes, business suits, long skirts, uniforms, big boots, clicking heels, roller blades, flip flops, back packs, sunglasses.


Carried items - bags, boxes, baskets, purses, boxes, brief cases, suit cases, umbrellas, canes, walking sticks, crutches, walkers. Holding children, in arms on shoulders (looks like two-headed person.)


Actions of People - relaxed stroll vs. urgent pace, walking very slowly, hurrying, dashing, jogging, sprinting, running, hopping, skipping, jumping, stomping, stumbling, tripping, falling, scuffing, shuffling, wrestling, sneaking, hovering, peering from behind something, odd gaits: stiff, limping, palsied shaking, mentally or physically disabled, or those impaired by alcohol or drugs.  Pushing carts, pulling wagons.

TRIGGER STACKING is when multiple concerns happen at once.  The dog might be able to handle meeting a child, but not on a busy street with a strange man, traffic noise, and distracted owner.

Attitude - calm, casual, friendly, direct, fearful, cautious, jumpy, excited, exuberant, bouncy, animated, silly, suspicious, resentful, grumpy, angry, threatening (toward the dog or when interacting with you or others.)


Attention - intensity of look, scrutinizing, staring, coaxing, holding eye contact, looming over, reaching for the dog.


Touch - friendly petting, rough petting, tentative petting, patting, pulling, pushing, poking, reaching over, sneaking up behind, hugging.


Sudden movement - running away, rushing toward, reaching over, gesturing with hands, unexpected person popping out from behind a car, the whoosh of an automatic door opening, something dropped or tipping over.


Traffic - cars, buses, vans, trucks, big delivery trucks, motorcycles, shopping carts, wheelchairs, motorized scooters, walkers, strollers, skate boards, bicycles, road construction vehicles, snow plows, snow blowers, leave blowers.

Weather - wind blowing, ice, snow, rain, thunder/lightning, hot sun, hot pavement, spring smells, leaves blowing.


Terrain / footing - asphalt, concrete, lawn, floor grates, rubber mats, curbing, slippery tile, carpet, stairs, ramps, elevators.


Animals - sea gulls, crows, pigeons, sparrows, other dog walkers, dogs in cars or behind fences, stray cats, squirrels, and the skunk or raccoon that left a scent trail last night.

Sounds - car engines, car doors slamming, rolling rattling sound of cart wheels, crashing of shopping carts, honking, sirens, car alarms, cell phones ringing, air brakes hissing, tires squealing, a backfire crunching of snow tires, splashing of puddles, music playing, loud speakers crackling, thumping bass on a car stereo, dogs barking, birds, people talking, singing, kids giggling, laughing, babies crying, toddler tantrums, someone yelling, arguments, teenage banter, shoes on pavement, flapping flags or signs, sprinklers hissing, loud speaker, beep-beep-beep of something backing up.


Overall noise level - Sudden big startling sounds vs. a constant barrage of sounds.


Smells - individual people (their mood, anxiety, adrenaline, sweat), perfumes, soaps, cigarette smoke, nicotine, alcohol, what they had for lunch, animals, plants, groceries, food cooking, coffee, scent trails where other pets/people have been, bird droppings, dropped food, etc, diaper smells, exhaust, garbage, smell of the interior of the store when doors open.  (And these are just the things YOUR nose can detect!)


Proximity - how close you are. Can your dog observe at a distance where he feels safe? Think of proximity like distance from a campfire. The closer to the distraction, the hotter (harder) it gets. You have to move to a comfortable "temperature" when things start to heat up.


Path and speed of travel - are the above things coming directly toward or from behind your dog, or passing left to right? Intent - are the above social behaviors directed AT your dog, or are they happening on the fringes?

Sudden environmental contrast - a constant flow of traffic is much different than the sudden appearance of a single car or person.

Time of day - daylight hours versus dusk or darkness.  A person in the shadows will be much more alarming than one in broad daylight.

Your response - your dog will be more alarmed if you are.  Your dog doesn't know that you are worried about his behavior - when you hold your breath and tighten the leash, he will think it is the thing he is worried about that makes you nervous or upset.


CLUSTERS of the above: Tall man in long flapping coat running wearing big boots. Your dog may be able to handle tall men but be totally freaked out (even after getting acquainted and feeling perfectly safe) if the same man suddenly ran.



Temperament and breed

Shy vs bold, inhibited vs uninhibited.  Visually stimulated, auditory sensitivity, instinctive/hereditary behavior.  What was your dog bred to do?  (Have you owned this breed before?  How long has it been since you raised a puppy from scratch?)

How well-socialized is your dog?

If your dog had rich early socialization and is accustomed to a wide variety of people, places, things and situations, he will be better able to listen, think and follow your directions.  The primary socialization window is 3-12 weeks.  Secondary socialization window is through 4.5 months.  Any deficit will affect how he responds to new things for the rest of his life.  Genetics also play a large role.

How old is your dog?
Young dogs, like young children, struggle with containing their emotions and their bodies.  They have more energy, they are easily overwhelmed, and they are quickly activated by sights and sounds and smells.  Adolescents push boundaries and need accountability.  Some breeds mature quickly, others more slowly. 


How much time have you put into training a specific skills?

"But he knows this!"  Yes, in his kitchen.  But not here.  Not now.

He may understand the basic concept of "come when called" across his own backyard.  Now, litter the same yard with hotdogs and see how well he comes.  You CAN train to that level.  But you can't expect a pup who barely has the concept down to perform at difficult levels of distraction until you have put in the work and time and dedication and skill to generalize his training to that level.

Generalization takes time and dedication.  If you've adequately practiced his well-learned skills in the presence of novel people, places and things in calm environments, he will learn how to perform accurately in the face of low-level distractions. Then you can move to slightly more distracting situations, increasing the difficulty a little at a time.  With time and practice, your dog will eventually be able to handle anything life throws at him that his temperament can handle. Bold, confident personalities will handle the unexpected far better than softer-tempered dogs.


Like any learning skill, if you don't continue to practice, your proficiency fades.  If you want your dog to be "perfect" you must maintain that high level training with ongoing practice and exposure in many environments. 

If your dog is placed in a novel situation that is too much for his skill level, his polished behaviors will be less-polished and his weaker behaviors will become non-existent.




Other factors that affect your dog's ability to work:





The overly-social dog in a park full of children or other dogs is like a kid at Disneyland.  He can't focus on his homework any more than a kid could do algebra on a roller coaster.  Take the edge off your wound-up dog BEFORE a walk.  Play fetch in the yard until your dog is tired and then go for a walk.  It will be a more productive walk for both of you.  Stick to non-stimulating environments while your dog is learning.


Previous trauma or lack of experience. To the un-socialized dog or pup who finds the world a little scary, scanning the horizon for danger takes precedence over silly commands like "sit." He simply cannot remain still on a stay, focused on his owner's whims when he is sure danger lurks nearby. Personal safety takes priority!



The stressed dog is going to put self-care first. Separated from a housemate, away from the security of familiar surroundings, previous associations that cars make him vomit or takes him to the veterinary clinic or groomers where he is left behind with strangers ... sit?


If what you ask your dog to do conflicts with proper dog etiquette, your dog will naturally attend to what his body language and direction of travel says to another animal or person. If you ask your dog to walk directly toward another dog who feels threatened, your dog will appropriately want to take the pressure off the other dog by making a curved approach around the other dog to give it space, sniff the ground, look away. He may not be able to follow your command to "down" or "stay" in the presence of a tricky social situation.




HUNGRY, FULL, TIRED, EXERCISED or UNDER-EXERCISED - all will have an effect on your dog's mood and ability to concentrate.


INSTINCT & DRIVE - What was your dog bred to do? A Border Collie next to a busy street with cars flying by or a pointer in the presence of a flock of birds will be doubly distracted by the environment. Smells are everywhere - you can't avoid them when walking your scent hound!

INTACT DOGS can't think if procreation is on the front burner.


DISCOMFORT: chronic pain, stiff muscles, allergic itching, too hot, too cold, full bladder.


That person your dog has spotted and has lost his mind over is a reward.  Trade access to the person for desired behavior.

This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:

© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People -

ditr_training @ -

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