Have you ever been surprised when your dog failed to do something that you were sure you had trained him to do? Perhaps he stays beautifully when you stand beside him in a quiet kitchen. But when you ask him to “stay” at the dog park from 20 feet away? Not so much. You may have trained him well in the kitchen, but you forgot to consider the three Ds of dog training.
The three Ds are duration, distance, and distraction, and they affect almost any behavior. Dogs don’t generalize well, meaning if they learn to sit in front of you, they don’t automatically know that “sit” means the same thing when you’re on the other side of the room. As each D increases, it becomes more difficult for your dog to understand how to perform a behavior successfully. And if all three come into play without your dog having trained for each one individually, the chance of him doing what you ask is slim.
Duration is the length of time your dog maintains a behavior. Some behaviors don’t have a duration factor, such as spinning in a circle or jumping over a bar, but for those behaviors that require your dog to hold a position, like “sit” or “down,” the longer he has to hold it, the harder the task becomes.
Whenever you train a new behavior, be sure to start with a very short duration, like one second. Then build the duration one second at a time. Whenever your dog gets it wrong, go back to a shorter interval that you know he can handle and start building one second at a time all over again.
Be aware of when you give your rewards. For example, many dogs pop out of a “down” as soon as their belly has touched the ground because they get their treat when they stand up. Treat your dog while he is in the position you want to reinforce rather than waiting until he’s moved. You can also treat throughout the duration; if you’re training your dog to sit for 60 seconds, pop a tiny treat in his mouth at 20-second intervals, as well as when he’s finished. He will quickly decide that sitting is his favorite position.
Distance is how far away you are from your dog when he does a behavior. The farther away you get, the less reliable your dog will become. When you’re training distance, start small and build slowly. Make sure your dog can handle a relatively large distance with you in front of him before you start moving to his side or behind him. Save leaving the room for last. Dogs know when we can’t see them, so turning your back or walking out of sight is particularly challenging.
When training, always return to your dog before you release him or give him his final reward. Doing so will prevent him from anticipating his treat and following you as you walk away. Remember, the farther you go, the lower your dog’s rate of reinforcement will be. After all, you can’t slip him treats while he holds a position, as you did with duration, if you aren’t beside him. For a behavior like lying on his bed, you can reinforce the distance by tossing treats onto his bed as you walk away. Or consider using the Treat and Train Remote Reward Dog Trainer, a remote-controlled reward system which allows you to provide treats from a distance.
Distraction involves whatever else is going on around your dog when he does a behavior, from a squirrel running across the yard to the sound of the doorbell. If your dog finds it exciting or disrupting, it’s a distraction. Even extra-special treats can be distracting for some dogs. Be sure your dog can handle duration and distance before you start adding distractions. That means training new behaviors in familiar, quiet environments where you are the most interesting thing in the room.
Just as with duration and distance, start with small distractions and build slowly. For example, teach your dog to wait at doorways in a quiet room in the house before moving to the back door, then the front door, then outside. As you increase the difficulty, consider increasing the value of your dog’s rewards.
Don’t forget the power of the “leave it” cue. It will help you communicate to your dog that he can’t have the thing he wants right now. And for those distractions that are too tempting for your dog to resist, like that squirrel, start with the distraction as far away as possible.
Putting It All Together
When you’re training your dog, only work on one D at a time, leaving distraction for last. Only combine the Ds once your dog has mastered each one on its own. So when you’re working on distance, lower your duration back to one second and keep the distractions to a minimum. Set your dog up for success and don’t rush.
Any time you notice your dog struggling to perform a behavior you thought he knew, look at the three Ds. Chances are there is something too tricky for him to handle. Incorporate duration, distance, and distraction into your training to ensure your dog understands what you’re asking no matter what. You’ll soon have a dog you can take anywhere — without any surprises.