“Au Pied,” she quietly whispered. It is the French word for “heel”, and the moment the words escaped her lips, the dog snapped into position, hugging his shoulder to her left leg, face gazing up at her expectantly.
A tug lay in the distance, resting on the city sidewalk, competing for the dog’s attention, which at the moment solely belonged to his handler.
The two moved in sync, walking forward in perfect time, the dog never breaking his focus from his handler who moved stoically, internalizing the thoughts that raced through her head as they moved.
She plotted her training program carefully, planned every step – she strived for precision. And right now, she had it.
But there, up ahead, lay the tug.
She had strategically placed it there. A remote reward she’d use to capture her dog’s success. To capture her dog’s focus when he left the distraction alone and completed his heeling routine. And while she knew that the tug, that inanimate object that lay in the distance, was trying with all of its might to steal her dog’s attention, she was confident she would win.
They worked next to a self serve car wash. The sounds of hoses, vacuums, and air pumps permeated the air, and people bustled all about. A city bus stopped close by, releasing a hoard of passengers who immediately saturated the city street like ants on spilt sugar. But those things didn’t tempt her dog’s attention. She was her dog’s world. Well….she – and the tug.
They continued their heeling pattern, closing in on the tug which she knew would pose a problem, but it was a problem she was ready to face. A hole she was ready to fix. Her goal – to teach her dog to win the tug by focusing, not by pulling. And she was well on her way.
They moved slowly towards the toy that lay taunting them silently from its spot on the sidewalk.
Her dog stayed focused, and she was impressed. His heel thus far was flawless, and she was proud.
They took a few steps closer. Still his gaze remained fixed on her. Still she won out over the coveted tug.
They inched closer and stopped. Her dog held his focus, sitting beside her just inches from the toy.
Feeling confident now….cocky perhaps…she took a few steps, heeling her dog over the toy that had been taunting him all the while.
The temptation was too much to bear.
As they stepped over the toy, and the dog saw his reward begin to vanish behind him, he lost control, pulling out with all of his strength to retrieve the toy he’d been pining for all along.
He was met with a sharp correction.
As her dog faltered, she brimmed with pride. She wanted him to make a mistake. Mistakes were the only way to close the holes in their program, so she was happy to have the opportunity to uncover and fix a problem area…to teach him to never cave to temptation….to teach him to stay focused.
The two moved on, again in sync, the dog snapping back into the heel position the moment he felt the correction, moving in time with his owner, perfectly focused just as she had wanted.
They approached the toy a second time – she wanted to see if he had learned his lesson…she wanted to test his focus again.
Stopping just inches from the tug, the dog maintained perfect position. The handler then took a deep breath and attempted to step over the toy again.
The dog swung wide, pulling hard out to the left to avoid the tug altogether. To get past the distraction as quickly as possible. He didn’t grab it. He didn’t pull to it. He simply avoided it.
She corrected again, fixing her position and moving on, her dog finding his perfect heel the moment the distraction was out of sight.
In her mind, she was correcting the dog for noncompliance….for breaking his heel. But from the dog’s perspective, he was being punished every time he approached that tug. And now, he was going to avoid it at all costs.
Dogs are brilliant creatures. They learn by forming associations, and they form those associations at lightning speed. It can be so easy to project onto our dogs our thoughts, our goals, and those associations and lessons we feel our dogs should be learning, meanwhile completely neglecting the actual dog at the end of our leash.
Here’s the thing. Sometimes our lessons don’t work out as planned. Sometimes, when we think we are correcting our dog for one thing, the lesson the dog is interpreting and learning is a completely different one. For this reason, it becomes critical we look for signs of conflict in our training every step of the way and keep our training plan dynamic, shaping it to our dog and his responses.
Here are some signs you may be causing conflict for your dog:
- Avoidance – Does your dog swing wide around an object, a distraction, or a person? Does he lag or try to avoid the object? Is he avoiding you? Pulling away from you or darting to the end of his leash as you approach? This avoidance behavior could be a sign of conflict, and if you see it, it’s time to take a deeper look. (Keep in mind, avoidance behaviors can be very slight, so at times you’ll need to pay close attention to spot them.)
- Vocalizations – Is your dog barking, yipping, growling, or whining? These could be signs of stress that shouldn’t go unaddressed.
- Yawning – Yawning isn’t always a sign of a tired dog. Yawning can be a way for dogs to release stress, so be sure to take note if your dog yawns often in training.
Adding distractions is a critical component in any comprehensive training program. But like anything else in dog training, it is not effective when done haphazardly. One of the biggest mistakes dog owners make is correcting their dog for noncompliance every time he or she becomes distracted. At times however, these corrections can have an adverse effect, teaching the dog to be weary of the distraction that always causes them a painful correction.
Here’s how to approach distraction training without adding conflict:
- Go slow – Don’t throw your dogs to the metaphorical wolves when you add in your distractions. Add your distractions slowly, and strive for success. Don’t take your training from your quiet living room to a busy park where you taunt your dog with his favorite squeaky toy and correct him if he breaks. Instead, add distractions incrementally, and work up to the hard stuff.
- Control your environment – Early on in your distraction training, you need to control your environment, so set your training sessions up to make that happen. When your dog is new to the program, a random off leash dog that solicits play or a person who rewards your dog with a pat on the head can have a huge effect on the lessons your dog takes away.
- An ounce of prevention – Don’t let your dog engage with distractions. If there are people in the environment, don’t let your dog be rewarded by them with pets and praise. Kindly ask those around you to ignore your dog so that he continues to think you are the best thing in his universe.
- Reward instead of correct – When you are first adding distractions, focus on rewarding engagement. The more difficult the distraction, the more frequent your rewards should be applied. Focus your training on holding your dog’s attention and rewarding for a job well done. This will teach your dog that whatever you have is better than whatever it is that is going on in his environment, without causing inadvertent negative associations with the distractions you are working for him to ignore. If you choose to correct noncompliance down the line, be sure to layer it in after you’ve established your foundation, and be sure to pay attention to ensure your dog is understanding your corrections.
- Watch for signs of conflict – As you add distractions, watch carefully for signs of conflict. If you notice them, take a step back and try your best to identify the source. There may just be something you are doing that is causing your dog stress.
Like anything in dog training, adding distractions to a training program should not be done randomly. As your dog’s trainer, it becomes critical that you pay close attention to your dog’s response and don’t assume he understands your lessons just because you do. He may be making associations that are completely unintended, and at times, detrimental to your end goal. And, having to backtrack and retrain because of confusion in your original training is extremely difficult and time consuming.
In the story of the dog and the tug, the handler taught the dog that the distraction she so strategically placed was synonymous with a hard correction – that every time he passed by it, he was punished. He didn’t understand he was being corrected for breaking his heel as she had believed – instead, he simply saw punishment, so conflict naturally ensued.
Instead, if the handler had gone slowly, added distractions incrementally, and focused on preventing the dog from accessing the tug while simultaneously rewarding heavily for engagement and focus, the conflict would have been eliminated, and the lessons she sought to teach would have been learned.
The beauty of dogs is that they are honest with us about our mistakes – they tell us through their behavior, through their reactions, and through their body language if there are holes in our communication. It takes a humble and highly observant handler to pay attention to the dog and learn from them – to shape their training to their dog and to have the humility to change the lesson if their dog isn’t quite getting the picture.