The COVID-19 pandemic has given us a lot more time at home with our dogs. That’s meant more time for training, either on our own or with virtual dog training classes. One advantage of this at-home learning has been the lack of distractions. It’s easier to teach your dog new behavior without anything disrupting their focus. However, at some point, your dog needs to learn to listen no matter what’s happening around them. Life will return to its normal hustle and bustle eventually, so, despite social distancing, you need to build distractions into your training program.
Why Distraction Training Is Important
When you teach your dog a behavior like sit or come, you want your dog to obey that request every time you ask, not just when there’s nothing better to do. When dogs don’t obey, people frequently label them as stubborn or think they are deliberately ignoring their owners. But in truth, dogs that don’t listen are often just distracted and haven’t learned to focus.
Focus is a skill you need to teach your dog. Other dogs, other people, noises, wild animals, etc. make it far more difficult for your dog to listen to you. They can become excited by everything happening around them and completely tune you out. You need to teach your dog that it’s worthwhile to ignore the world and pay attention to you no matter what.
While social distancing is the norm, your dog won’t face nearly as many distractions as usual. Plus, it’s easier to be the center of your dog’s attention when you’re around all the time and there are fewer people and dogs to interact with. When life returns to pre-pandemic conditions, your dog is likely to be overwhelmed by all the interesting activities and visitors. Don’t wait until then to tackle distraction training. Get on it now so your dog is prepared for the return to normal.
How to Add Distractions to Your Training
When teaching your dog to overlook distractions, you can’t go from a quiet living room to the middle of a busy park and expect your dog to get it. You need to start with small distractions and build step by step to larger, more exciting distractions. You can’t control what’s going to happen out in the real world, so the more you can build various events into your training, the better prepared your dog will be.
For example, if your dog is obsessed with chasing their squeaky toy, don’t start by throwing the toy past your dog. That’s simply too irresistible. Instead, start with the toy lying several feet away from your dog. Then slowly move the toy closer and closer. Next, hold the toy in your hand. Then you might toss the toy up and down before finally throwing it near your dog. It might take you several weeks to move through all the steps, but in the end your dog will listen even with such a huge temptation.
The trick is to ensure your dog’s success. If you move too fast, your dog will ignore you and instead pursue the distraction. And that’s not the kind of thing you want them to practice. On the other hand, if you move slowly through the steps, your dog will learn that listening to you brings great rewards.
How to Create Distractions During a Pandemic
Low-level distractions are easy to create. For example, you might leave a tennis ball in plain view or softly clap your hands. High-level distractions like squirrels can be found in the yard or out in the street. Although you might not be able to recreate the excitement of the dog park or an in-person dog training class, do your best to manufacture events with a similar level of diversion.
The in-between distractions might be the trickiest. Get creative and think of ways you can challenge your dog before heading for the backyard or park. Do you have a family member who can jog past your dog in the quiet kitchen? Are there other dogs who regularly walk past your window on their daily walks? Can you ask a friend to provide a distraction in the driveway while still practicing social distancing?
Rank your dog’s interests from least exciting to most exciting and look for ways to work through the items. The following lists should help you come up with ideas:
- Training in a different room of the house.
- Placing an empty food bowl on the ground.
- Playing the television quietly.
- Snapping your fingers or softly clapping your hands.
- Looking away from your dog.
- Having another person in the room while you train.
- Placing a bowl of kibble (or other food your dog finds ho hum) on the floor.
- Doing jumping jacks in front of your dog.
- Having another person jog around the room while you train.
- Training in front of the window or in the driveway while people or dogs walk past.
- Rolling a ball past your dog.
- Playing the television loudly.
- Training while people run or jog past your dog.
- Training while bikes, cars, or skateboards go past your dog.
- Throwing a ball past your dog.
- Training in a park where children or other dogs are playing.
- Training in the backyard or park while squirrels run around.
- Placing chicken or another favorite food on the ground or tossing it near your dog.
Don’t let the pandemic distract you from distraction training. COVID has given us extra time at home, so use it wisely and build distractions into your dog training routine. By the time life returns to normal, your dog will be ready for all the excitement and will listen to you no matter who is around or what is happening.
The AKC is here to help owners with questions and concerns about COVID-19 and dogs. Find answers to your questions, plus at-home activity ideas, training tips, educational resources, and more on our Coping With COVID-19 hub.