Is Your Dog Distracted Outside?
Help your dogs focus when outside through obedience
"Watch me" is a great way to get attention
Why are Dogs Distracted Outside?
So your dog is easy to train indoors, but the moment your dog steps outside he's terribly distracted, why is that? There are several explanations for this behavior, and your dog is not necessarily being stubborn nor is he attempting to climb up the social ladder, as some old-school trainers may suggest. Truth is, your dog is likely just distracted by surrounding stimuli and just needs a little more guidance. At a closer glance, putting yourself in your dog's perspective may help you understand why he may pose a deaf ear to your requests for attention. Let's take a look at some causes for his distraction.
For starters, is your dog kept outdoors on his own for a good part of the day? Many dog owners like to keep their dogs outside and this makes dogs go into the "do as you please" mode. In other words, bored, and perhaps frustrated, outdoor dogs may find relief by engaging in behaviors such as digging, sniffing, chasing animals and so forth. All these activities are reinforcing to dogs because it helps them stay entertained and they are natural and instinctive. Soon this outdoor behavior becomes quite habitual, just as you get sleepy when you go into your bedroom or excited when you head to the amusement park or movie theater. Your dog may therefore have learned to associate the outdoors with these outdoor activities and will feel compelled to continue them even in your presence.
On the other hand, some dogs are simply more on edge, fearful and easily spooked when outside. If these dogs are tending to things happening in their environment because they feel unsafe, they are unable to fully relax and be able to listen to you. This is often due to an innate fearful disposition, lack of socialization or simply a dog who has associated the outdoors with scary stimuli. You can't blame these dogs; if you are terrified of spiders and one is about to crawl on your arm, do you think you would care about your friend telling you the story of his life? Most likely you will care less and focus more on getting the spider from crawling on your arm!
In some cases though, dogs may just associate the outdoors with exciting things. If your dog was kept indoors for part of the day he may be really eager to head out and get rid of some pent-up energy. If he hasn't had a chance to relieve himself, his first thought may be to pee or poop. If he is used to go to the dog park or meet his friend around the corner, he may be so eager to get there, he just cannot focus.
Some dogs just seem they can't help it. When outdoors, they are bewitched by certain scents or sights especially certain outdoorsy breeds such as the hounds. These dogs simply have an innate tendency to look for prey and will pursue and some will also often pose a deaf ear to your commands--unless you find a way of making them worthy of listening to. For more on this read "Are hounds hard to train?"
Whether your dog is excited, fearful or used to attend to outdoor stimuli for most of the day, it's clear that he's unable to focus. And when a dog is over threshold, he is unable to concentrate. In the next paragraphs we will go over some tips to help your dog focus more.
How to Help Your Dog Focus Outdoors
So you know for a fact that Rover could care less about responding to your requests to sit or heel when he is out, so how can you help him focus better? The approach you take really depends on your type of dog and his emotions. You will therefore need to really observe your dog's body language carefully try to understand whatever rocks his boat.
If your dog's body appears stressed or fearful then you will need to help your dog relax more. The benefits of this are two-fold; one one hand, your dog will be spared from the prolonged effects of stress, and on top of that, your dog will learn to respond to you in a distracting environment which also helps boost confidence over time. Helping your dog relax more involves gradual exposure through desensitization, but in some cases, calming aids may be needed to help the dog reach a relaxed state that allows learning to take place. Calming aids include thunderhshirts, anxiety wraps, DAP sprays and calming supplements. Confidence building exercises and positive reinforcement training including clicker training can help and so can a sport such as agility.
If your dog appears to be too excited, he may also be too much over threshold to learn. Impulse control exercises through the Premack principle may help him learn how calm behaviors help attain life rewards the dog looks forward to.
Outdoor dogs may benefit from being taken indoors and kept supervised when outdoors so they can be provided feedback and guidance. Keeping an outdoor dog inside may pose some challenges the first days, but when they are given repeated feed back by marking wanted behaviors they often become happy companions and are less likely to rehearse compulsive outdoor behaviors triggered by frustration such as barking, digging and relentless pacing. Often owners are surprised how these dogs start paying more and more attention to the owner which now becomes the main source of reinforcement rather than outdoor stimuli. Outdoors, games based on rewards may also help make the owner more salient in respect to outdoor distractions.
Tips for Training in the Great Outdoors
In the dog training world, you get more and more reliable behavior when distance, duration and distractions are added to the picture. In the outdoor world, distractions are the main obstacles that need to be overcome. Distance though may play a role too since there's likely more space outdoors and places to wander so you may find yourself asking commands from some distance.. The following tips should help achieve your goal.
Give relief from excess energy/physical needs
If your dog has been indoors all day, you may want to help him get rid of pent-up energy before starting an outdoor training session. Play some fetch, a game of frisbee or hide-n-seek. Then when your dog is under better control, but not too tired, you can start training. Also make sure your dog had an opportunity to relieve himself and that he isn't too thirsty. Some dogs focus better after the novelty of being outdoors has waned.
Add distractions gradually
In order to get a dog to respond in distracting environments, it's important to start asking the behavior indoors, and then, only once it's more fluent, you can add the distractions of the great outdoors gradually and progressively.
Take a few steps back
If your dog at some point stops responding and appears too distracted, you are going too fast and need to decrease the level of distraction, and even, possibly increase the value of the treats you are using to reward. While at home plain kibble may work, outside you may want to invest in more valuable treats. To lower the level of distractions, you may just need to initially work at a distance from the distractions.
Skip Variable Rates
Also, keep your dog on a continuous rate of reinforcement when distractions are initially added. This means reward your dog for every correct response even if indoors you got your dog on a variable schedule.
Train Alternate Behaviors
If say your dog likes to sniff and spend hours with his head on the ground, you can try training a "watch me" and reward your dog for making eye contact. If your dog tries to chase butterflies, you can train him to "target" your hand instead. If your dog likes to bark, keep his mouth busy by letting him fetch objects and so forth.
Practice, practice, practice
My clients are often surprised when I tell them that dog training doesn't end at 8 weeks but it lasts a life time. The best behaved dogs are those who belong to the most committed owners, so you sort of get what you invested. If you only train 5 minutes once a week, expect so-so results, compared to if you train at least an hour a week split in several sessions.
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