Working with Distraction
by Joe Law
26 June 2012

How many times have we heard dog handlers complain that the dog performs perfectly in his home environment but at trials behaves as if he has never been trained?  The difference is in the distraction level.  Dogs often associate a learned behaviour with the place in which it was learned and when moved to a new location, the distraction levels play havoc with the dog’s performance.

At trials, the dog is not only experiencing a new location but is also confronted with new odours, other dogs, other activities, noises, people, different types of terrain, cover, birds and gunfire as well as working at various distances.  The question then becomes how to condition your dog to cope with the distractions?

The answer is to initially train with as few distractions as possible and then gradually increase distraction levels slowly and methodically.  Each time a new distraction is introduced into the training program, it is like a new beginning for the dog, and other factors influencing the dog will need to be reduced or even eliminated for a while before gradually being reintroduced.

An example might be to train a dog to walk at heel while off lead and to be steady right up to the moment when it is sent to retrieve:
(1) Establish the behaviour in the yard with no distraction and nothing cast.

(2) Stay in the yard and gradually add distractions:
             (a) Another person standing or walking close by.
             (b) Another dog or animal sitting or moving around.
             (c) A child playing with a ball.
             (d) Some obstacles in the path that need negotiating.
             (e) Some noise: laughter, clapping, coughing, squealing, gunfire
             (f) Move to a new location and repeat the distractions.

(3) Move to another location with heavier cover and different odours and reintroduce the distractions slowly.

(4) Repeat the whole set of exercises from the beginning only now have something cast when the dog reaches the firing point but do not allow the dog to retrieve.

(5) Reward the dog by allowing it to retrieve occasionally but only when steadiness has been perfect.

At Retrieving Trials, sighted birds combined with gunfire are very exciting for the dog and much of the training demanding steadiness and control can be easily forgotten in the heat of the moment.  Too many opportunities to retrieve and not enough emphasis on obedience and steadiness, especially in a dog’s early training, can easily result in bad habits being formed.  It is important that all aspects of obedience, including carrying and delivering game to hand, are combined with casting and lining drills and constantly maintained in a dog’s training program.  However, that having been said, momentum and retrieving drive must also be maintained and a balanced program to suit a dog’s individual needs is important.

This is an edited version of an article that first appeared in the November 2012 issue of Dogs NSW magazine.

This page is provided by Working Gundog Club Inc. (Affiliated with Dogs NSW)