Saturday, March 5, 2022

What distracts your dog?


Azul & Cam exploring scents in an old barn.

Different dogs find different things distracting and for a whole ton of different reasons!  Before we can work to get our dog's focus on us instead of distractions we have to do a little digging into what distracts our dogs.  This post is designed to help you determine what is distracting to your dog.

Recognizing Common Distractions

It doesn't matter if you live in an urban environment or a rural environment, there are bound to be lots of distractions in your environment that you dog finds fascinating.  Wildlife such as birds, squirrels, deer, moles, and so many others are popular in most outdoor spaces.  Other pets inside your house, out in the neighborhood, and visiting friend's homes are also common distractions.  Just because your dog gets along well with your cat, that doesn't mean they are going to get along with your friend's cat.  People tend to be a huge distraction as well, urging your dog to want to go greet them or bark to create space away from them.  This list could be endless because there are simply way to many possibilities.

No doubt there are some things in your personal list of distractions that mildly effect your dog and other distractions that quickly set your dog in crazy motion at first sight.  Cam absolutely loves to chase tennis balls and this can be an awesome motivator against some distractions, but can also become a distraction of it's own if I'm trying to get him to focus on anything else.  Strange dogs are also a huge distraction of Cam's so if that dog he doesn't trust is also chasing a tennis ball, Cam is over threshold instantly!

Throughout this month, I want you to create a list of 5-10 distractions and try to rate them in order of most distracting, #1 worst, to least distracting, #10 mildly distracting.  You can keep building your list as you encounter things over the next month.  And future posts will refer to this list as we explore March Madness: Distractions together.

The Emotions Behind the Distraction

In February we discussed how emotions impact our dog's behaviors.  Our dog's reacting to any distraction is based on the emotional feeling they get when the first see, smell, or hear that distraction.  Their behavior helps us to determine which emotion they are feeling.  Here are a few of the common emotions that are impacted by distractions.

FEAR - A distraction that causes a fear reaction can cause mild avoidance behaviors or extreme outrage behaviors.  These are some of the hardest distractions to work around as it takes a very long time to change a fear emotion in a dog.  And you may not be able to completely take away that fear, but you can help the dog to learn to trust in you, recall previous training to help them remember the best way to proceed safely, and teach teamwork skills so that you both can avoid these distractions as safely as possible.

JUDGEMENT/EVALUATION - This is a core survival response to a distraction and often what happens when we come across unknown dogs.  With a previous history of meeting the distraction sometimes ending on a happy note and sometimes ending an not so good note, dogs will slide into this emotional state of trying to access the situation.  They are not sure yet if the distraction is a friend or foe and they want to proceed with caution.

ALERT/AWARE - This type of response is more like, "Oh wow, there is a distraction but we are good here and can continue what we were doing before we saw the distraction."  This is what most of us aspire to or what we wish our dog did with distractions!  This is what we train for when we play the Look at That Game.

HAPPY EXCITEMENT - This can often seem like a mild fear reaction with some of the same behaviors presenting such as barking, pulling, or other spaz type reactions.  The big difference is that with a fear reaction the dog's body language is often tense and with excitement the dog's body language is often loose and wiggly.  This can be just as difficult to gain focus from a dog in this emotional state as in a fear state, but it's much easier to help them de-escalate with some practice.

OVER-ENTHUSIASTIC -  This response usually comes from a happy state of mind, but the dog is so amped up that they really can't hear anything their person is asking them to do.  This is where we as owners tend to get into trouble because the dog can easily hurt us or that distraction simply due to their bounciness.

There are many possibilities between those basic emotional reactions, but we are going to try to focus on those for our March Madness posts.  Each one of those basic emotions needs to be addressed in slightly different ways and using different types of reinforcers or motivators to help redirect our dog's attention back on us.  That is why we really need to determine what the emotion behind the distraction is before we can create the training plan around that distraction.  So in making your list, put a negative (-) mark next to distractions with emotional states that are fear/anxiety based and double negative (--) next to the distractions that cause the "create space" behaviors of barking or snapping.  Then put a positive (+) mark next to the distractions that cause excitement based emotions and a double (++) mark if that distraction sends your dog over threshold for ability to even listen to you.

Cam: Strange Dogs --, Balls -+, treats (can be + or ++ depending on the day), squirrels +, deer ++

Azul: Strange Dogs ++, Dog Friends +, Treats -, squirrels +/++, strangers/people +, people friends ++, trail scents start out +, but too many too quickly turn into ++.

Every dog is different!  So do your best to figure it out and if you need help, let me know!  I'm happy to help!

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