In the FAD (Focus Around Distractions) Workshop we talked a lot about practicing around the distractions in your environment that were somewhat controllable; other dogs that belong to friends & family, farm animals behind barriers, people, traffic, etc. But many of us also struggle with distractions that we can not control or pop up rather unexpectedly. We briefly mentioned having an escape route or escape plan when a situation arises that is unsafe and how to train for that. We also discussed tips for helping your dog to learn how to self-regulate and bring their arousal level down. However we didn't really talk about how to set up training sessions to teach your dog how to process the unexpected and recover more quickly returning to a neutral state once the surprise has passed. This is probably one of the least talked about subjects in all of dog training. Why? Because it varies so much from dog to dog. A dog that has extreme anxiety might need a different approach then a dog who is more curious. You have to remember to work with the dog in front of you. But there are a few things that I've found to be helpful on your journey to developing resiliency in your dog.
Resiliency in dog training is described as a dog's ability to respond to environmental stimuli and recover successfully. A resilient dog will not be as affected by trauma and will typically bounce back faster when something bad happens.
There are 3 things to come into play that can effect a dog's resiliency; genetics, early development, and their current living situation. Once we have a dog, we can't change their genetics. If we have a puppy, we can have an impact on how they develop by providing them lots of early experiences with novel things and helping them to learn to process the world around them. But if we take in an adolescent or an adult dog, the only thing we can really have an impact on is their current situation. And that is where the roadmap to developing resiliency has many paths.
How to help your dog become RESILIENT!
First and foremost, before any training sessions be sure to meet your dog's needs. Basic needs include food, shelter, water, and a feeling of safety. But dogs have many more needs that need to be addressed before they are ready to learn and work as a team; exercise, entertainment, enrichment, relationships, etc. Make sure you are meeting their needs before you do any type of adjustment to training around distractions.
Second, all dogs have a basic need for feeling safe. If they've have previous trauma or if they are new in your home, you have to give them time to adjust and process all that has transpired. A dog that has had a significant trauma may take months, even years to feel safe in your care. A dog that has just relocated to your home will generally follow the rule of 3's. They typically take 3 days to feel comfortable with you, their new person, 3 weeks to begin to understand the rules and routines in your house, and 3 months to fully relax enough to allow their true personality to emerge. You must give them that time to adjust and decompress from previous life experiences before you start to build confidence and resilience around distractions.
Third, give them the skills they need to rely on by playing games and training away from distractions. Then add in distractions you can control in a manner that helps them to transition the skills from a learning phase to an automatic phase. Only then you begin to work around the distractions that you can not control. Until that time you must use management skills to keep both you and your dog safe, calm, and happy. This may mean tools such has a harness, gentle leader, and leash. But management also means choosing environments wisely for the best outcomes and setting up a daily routine that meets the dog's needs without exposing them to things that are dangerous or that they fear.
Providing safety for your dog.
This is commonly overlooked as it different for different dogs! By learning their triggers or things that scare them, you can work to avoid those triggers until the dog is at a point that they are ready to train around such things. Providing them a safe place to call their own is also helpful; a crate, a raised bed, a mat, their own room, any place that becomes a place to go where no one will bug them or mess with them. And finding ways to connect and build your relationship with your dog will also help them to feel safe.
Reduce Sensory Overload
The more a dog has to process things in their environment, the slower they are going to recover from trauma and life changes. While all dogs need to learn how to process their environment, too much too soon can slow down the process. Think about all 5 senses; sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste. Dog's use all 5 of their senses to process the environment around them. However if they are overwhelmed, it is somewhat easy to reduce 1 or more of those senses involving the current environment you are placing them in. For example, if you are using a crate for training you can cover the crate to reduce line of sight of the other distractions in that area or place the crate in a quiet room away from sound triggers. You can also help by providing things to focus on one of the senses that they seem to enjoy. A collar or blanket that another dog previous used could help them calm down as they learn the scent of that other dog in a safe, non-threatening way. A chew toy that smells like a food they love may help calm their sense of taste and touch in a distracting situation. The possibilities are practically endless, but the main goal is reduce some things that impact the senses while increasing other things that impact the senses to help the dog focus more on using 1-2 senses instead of all 5 at the same time.
Provide Social Support on Their Terms
This is where things start to vary from dog to dog as each individual needs different types of social support. Your dog may love to be touched and massaged or they may hate it. Your dog might be happy to hang out in the same room as you and skip the touching. Your dog may love outside and you can offer support simply by sitting outside under a shade tree while they sniff on a longline. Work to figure out what they love most about you and engage doing that activity with them every day. This can partnered with playing games they enjoy that also help to reinforce the behaviors you want them to repeat. Almost everything you want to train your dog to do can be done in the form of a game. And we all feel loved and supported when enjoy playing together.
Getting Back to the Distractions You Can't Control
Once you've helped your dog recover from the trauma or life changes in your life, and you've taught them the skills to navigate around the distractions you can control, you're ready to move on to the distractions that you can reasonable predict. For example, we all know that if you get to close to a squirrel, they are going to run up a tree or the next tallest thing they can find. So we can reasonable train around a squirrel by keeping a safe distance where our dog is not overly excited waiting for that squirrel to climb higher then you and your dog. Once they do that, you can begin your slow approach one step at a time towards the base of that tall item. Avoid letting your dog rush up that spot unless you have them on a longline or off leash where they will not be pulling you to get there! One step at a time, regain focus, back up if you need to...eventually you get there and can let the dog sniff the tree the squirrel climbed. The squirrel may have already moved on, but your dog will still enjoy the smells.
Cats are an example that may or may not be predictable. If you have a friend's cat that is used to being around dogs, that would be more predictable. If you have a neighborhood cat that you see all the time and doesn't appear to stress easily at your dog's presence, that can work too. But if you have lots of different neighborhood cats and never know which one you will run across and where, that becomes far less predictable and probably not something you want to choose to train around until you are dog have developed great teamwork around cats.
Try to get creative with distractions that are found in your environment that you know are triggers for your dog. If moving, running animals trigger a chase response you can set up some training to help with impulse control by rolling a ball across the floor at home, then have a friend roll a ball a larger distance outside going right across your path. You can also have that same friend drive a mini R.C. car which will often stimulate the chase instinct. Look for these creative solutions before taking on the real life situations that are uncontrollable and less predictable. This will help set your team up for success and slowly build the skills to be able to handle the occasional unpredicted distraction and help your dog to recover more quickly when unforeseen things happen.
The last piece of advice I have for you when trying to train around uncontrollable distractions is pay attention to how that trigger impacts YOU the human end of the leash. If your dog has been attacked by another dog and now when you see an unknown dog, you both tense up this will make training around this much harder. You have to learn to relax around the trigger before you can ask your dog to be successful in that situation. The same can apply to wildlife! If you hate snakes and you are trying to train your dog to leave snakes alone or avoid snakes you have to work at distance that keeps both your dog and YOU calm and feeling safe. Don't forget to take care of your emotional needs before you try to help your dog. You become resilient as a team! Better together! Stronger together!