A. The Walk
There are two aspects to this behavior: 1. having a person walk by the dog and 2. walking the dog by a person. Work through both.

Practice on several other people individually, increase level of difficulty (may be from friends to strangers or the reverse depending on the dog’s level of sociability.)

1. Start by walking by one familiar person at a distance, decreasing distance at each pass. C/t for any loose leash, or focus on you. As you get closer, you dog may tend to move towards the person. To keep her near you, increase your rate of rewards. Practice on several other people individually, increase level of difficulty (may be from friends to strangers or the reverse depending on the dog’s level of sociability.)
Increase number of people to two, then three.

2. Next ask one person to walk by you and your dog at a distance, then closer. If as they approach, your dog tends to move towards them, try using rapid fire rewards (c/t done in quick succession to keep your dog's attention on you. Decrease the speed over time as they approach and she keeps her focus on you.
C/t can be used as an interrupter and to refocus your dog on you but be careful not to wait too long as you might unintentionally be rewarding moving toward the person. Timing is key here. Better to click to soon (for focussing on you) than too late in this circumstance.

B. People Wearing Different Clothes
Use people of different ages, sizes, clothing (hats, sun glasses, mustaches, carrying bags, add a pillow for a big belly, draped clothing like saris, etc)

C. People Carrying and Pushing Things (sound and motion elements)
Start with one person and one object held stationary. Then moving object a little, then more, then faster. Add sound (such as bag flapping in wind or umbrella popping open)
Train for canes, strollers, wheelchairs, skateboards, shopping carts, etc.
You may need to do some separate training at home first getting your dog to target then learn to push large children’s plastic toys, allowing your dog to interact with a skateboard (motion and sounds) etc.

D. Training for People Carrying Food
Start at home by training “leave it” cue for food, toys and other objects you don’t want your dog to touch when out in crowds. (see Sue Ailsby's Training Levels for a detailed description).

Ask a friend to hold food in their hand and cue leave it etc. Then hold it so it is visible. Then closer and closer to dog nose level. Place yummy-smelling food in a bag and ask a friend to walk by the dog. C/t for keeping the nose away, then for focussing on you.

Use adults, teens and dog-safe children.

Ask dog-friendly strangers to do the same.

E. Adding More People
Next, visit an outdoor public event where dogs are allowed and you can easily choose your distance from the crowds (check out your local community event listings in the newspaper or on-line).

Walk the periphery.
Walk a few steps in and out.
Walk further in and out.
Walk in longer or across to other side.
Spend more time in that environment-bring a chair and sit for awhile.

F. People with Dogs and Other Animals
Train for the animal first using the same process as for moving objects before training for people with dogs (or other animals) in a crowd.

Train each animal species separately –horses, cats on leash, ducks, etc.-whatever you know you are likely to face in your everyday life. See blog post (Distraction 1.3)

G. Go to Events or Training locations Where People Have Their Animals With Them
Start with a single species event such as a dog trial, then a horse event. A 4-H Club Display or County Exhibition can be a great place to test/practice the level of distraction your dog can tolerate after she has had much training.

Start at the periphery as for crowd events. Give yourself and your dog lots of space to escape and know where physical barriers are in case your dog goes above his threshold.

Move to small groups at periphery, before moving to other areas of more dense people and animals. Err on the side of keeping under threshold.

Be Proactive, not Reactive!
Be prepared for any situation and always have a way out planned ahead of time!

Anticipatory Training is the Best Defence
Once your dog and you have worked through the process of training for different kinds of distractions, you will be ready to take on anything. You can use the same general approach if something unforeseen pops up and each new challenge, your dog will respond more quickly. Mix and match the approaches as needed.

For example, one woman in a wheel chair with her service dog was at a horse competition and found herself just above ground level with all the horses running directly at her and her dog, then turning to the side to take a jump. For various reasons, it was not possible to request a different seating location. Her assistance dog was so distracted at first she was unresponsive to cues and would move to the side each time a horse approached, but after marking and jackpot rewarding calm behavior when the first few horses were far away, then marking and rewarding as each successive horse approached a little closer, the dog was resting comfortably beside her chair about 20 minutes later with the horses thundering nearby, ready to be able to offer her help at any time.

What Environments will you be Visiting in the Future?
Identify the potential distractors in each environment and work through each before visiting. Intend that each of your visits are training sessions and focus on your dog. It may mean you visit the location without your dog or stay at the sidelines to observe at first. Look at each location from your dog’s perspective. Make a list, prioritize as above and pre-train your dog to not react around those distractors (expose her to those under controlled settings such as at home, in familiar training environments etc.) It may mean you ask friends and family for their help, you may need to borrow equipment for a couple of weeks or ask permission to go into locations during quiet periods or after hours. Be creative and resourceful in gaining access to places. If you ask, and explain what you plan to do, often people are willing to help, if not professionally, at least personally. 

Choose a location where the subject animal(s) are behind a fence, in a crate or cage, tethered on a long line, on a leash being handled by another trusted person, or otherwise safely confined. This is for your safety, your dog’s safety and the animal’s safety.

A. One Animal
Start with single calm animal at a distance if at all possible. C/t for any looking or sniffing in that direction while staying calm.

Dog will eventually start looking at the animal, then at you in anticipation of getting the reward. When she is doing that 5 or more times in a row, start clicking the looking back at you. When she is offering that consistently, you can also start naming the behavior “Look” so it comes under verbal cue control. (Tip: “Look” is usually used to get the dog to look at something whereas “Watch” is used to get your dog’s eye contact.)

At the beginning of training sessions cue the look once, then cue simple or fun behaviors your dog knows in quick short bursts of 10 or less. Give your dog a one minute break by moving further away, disengaging eye contact, then move back in and try cuing a few more quick behaviors.

When she is successful with several sessions of that, cue slightly more difficult behaviors.

Next, at that same distance, drop the “Look” cue and just start cueing the simple behaviors. (Your dog shouldn’t need to look at the object/person of interest before doing the cued behavior.) Then try more difficult behaviors.

Next, decrease the distance a little.

Now start cueing simple or fun behaviors your dog knows in quick short bursts of 10 or less. Give your dog a one minute break, then try a few more.

When she is successful with several sessions of that, try slightly more difficult behaviors.

Decrease the distance again. Repeat as above.

Before you get too close to the animal, decide what is a safe distance and if you want your dog to actually interact. If you choose to have her interact, make sure there are other knowledgable people handling the other animal(s) and have a plan. Watch carefully for body language (to indicate stress levels) and have one or both animals confined behind a fence or on a leash so you can move them apart quickly if needed.

B. Multiple Animals
When your dog is able to work with you fairly close to one animal, add a second and work your way from the beginning through the same process. Remember that adding a second animal may chance the dynamics of the group so progress more slowly. Add a few more animals in the same way.
 

 

(For the purposes of this blog post, an object could be a ball, balloon, bicycle, skateboard, shopping cart, car, vacuum cleaner, riding lawn mower, garbage truck etc.)

For safety and the confidence of you dog, always stay with your dog, within leash length. Never leave your dog unattended (especially if leashed) when a human-operated object is in the area (with or without the human presence). There is too much risk of unknowing people making mistakes that can scar your dog.

A. Smelling & Touching the Object
Start object stationary at a distance that is below threshold.
Work closer in small increments until dog is in nose touch reach. Sometimes, you may need to approach the object directly. For example if your dog is focusing on a strange-shaped rock, it might be better to walk directly to it and touch it yourself, then let your dog interact with it. With a noisy or dangerous machine, it would be better to take a slower approach described below.
Other times it is better to slowly move towards it and c/t for any calm behavior and focus on you. When you arrive there, allow your dog to interact with it: sniff it all around, (approach from various angles), nose and paw target it, push it, stand on it -whatever is appropriate for that object, your dog and their physical safety, and social environment the object is in.
When your dog is able to stand or sit calmly nearby the stationary object, try cueing several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, glance at you, sit, etc that you dog can do easily or enjoys doing, Of course click and treat for attempts and good responses.
Next, play with a toy near the object.
Now ask for more complex behaviors-downs, short recalls, heeling, longer duration eye contact, and some service tasks (appropriate to environment).
You can add distance and hopefully your dog will be satisfied she knows what the object is and will ignore it and respond to your cues. If she does not, keep working her near the object or approaching other similar objects in the same way in other locations. Your dog should soon generalize that the object is an object, no matter where you are and not worthy of interest.

B. Hearing the Object
Add some distance, find the sound threshold and work below it and have a helper make it move with its sounds (bicycle bumping over gravel, brake squeaking etc) or turn the object on (if motorized) but keep it stationary.
Move closer to the object as dog becomes comfortable with the sound.
Cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that your dog can do or enjoys doing. Play with a toy near it. Now ask for more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

You can add distance and hopefully your dog will be satisfied she knows what the object is and will ignore it and respond to your cues. If she does not, keep working her near the object or approaching other similar sounding objects in the same way in other locations. Your dog should soon generalize that the object is an object, no matter where you are and not worthy of interest.

C. Watching the Object Move
Again start at a distance and ask someone else to move/drive the object.

Start at a very slow speed. Increase speed as dog can handle it. When dog can handle the object passing by and is deferring to you, cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that you dog can do or enjoys doing.

Next, play with a toy near it.

Now cue more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

Move closer to the object. You move to it first, as it may trigger interest or fear on your dog’s part. You want your dog to feel she has choice in approaching the noisy object or moving away. This will give her a sense of control and confidence. If at any time, she wants to move away, go with her to just below her threshold distance. When she is comfortable with that and able to focus on you and successfully carry out simple cues, direct the object to move parallel to her, then on angle, then more towards you and your dog.

Progress slowly and stay under the dog’s threshold if at all possible to build success. At each step, start with simple cues, progress to playing, then to more complex behaviors.

D. Unpredictability
Ask the other person to be less predicable in driving by, towards dog, fast, slow etc.
Cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that you dog can do or enjoys doing.

Play with a toy.

Next ask for more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

Move towards or away from object as needed for your dog’s success. Reward for staying focused and completing tasks!

E. Generalizing to other Locations

Set up situations where you and your dog encounter the object in other environments. Be ready for a training session as needed. Remember to decrease your criteria whenever you change a criteria (such as speed, loudness of sound, environment the object is seen in etc).

Can you see the pattern you are building here?
 
Listen to the Audio version of this blog post.
 
Be Flexible
Remember that despite your best planning, no plan will occur exactly as it is laid out on paper. You, your dog and the distraction or environment will demand that changes be made on the fly. Below are training plans (think of them as frameworks if it helps you be flexible) to get you started. Please adapt or modify them for your own dog’s needs. They can be used for basic beginning training or training problem areas or anything in between. Each stage may take one training session or many, depending on you, your dog, his previous training and experience with similar situations, the object, animal or people involved and the environment where training occurs. Don’t forget, you will be clicking (or marking) and rewarding for calm behavior or focus on you at each little step.

Your Dog's Perspective
When training a dog for distractions you need to think from your dog’s perspective. Dogs learn about the world using predominantly their senses of smell, hearing and sight. So these senses are what will capture their attention. Which sense is predominant is usually determined by the breed. So for example, sight hounds are usually triggered by the sight of things moving quickly, scent hounds are triggered by interesting smells, while more reactive dogs (like terriers), tend to be more sensitive to sounds. You may need to spend more time on your dog’s preferred sense than the others but you want to make sure you work on all three separately, then together. Be creative-ask others for ideas if you run into a real challenge for your dog.

Work on Only One Aspect of a Distraction at a Time
Break down each distraction into its simplest parts and work each one separately. Once success has been achieved with each one, then you can start combining components. This is what is known as raising the criteria or splitting the behavior.

Set the Scene
Also remember that if you are calm, your dog will be too. Take a helper to help setting up the training equipment or the environment, provide moral support for you or to interact/distract/direct members of the public as required. Give them clear guidance what EXACTLY you want them to do. (Stand up straight, avoid eye contact with dog, explain to public what you are doing when they reach a specific spot etc). Thanking them afterwards or taking them out for a coffee etc goes a long way to having them help you again-think positive reinforcement for humans!

Remember to Reward
At each step of the training, start by click and rewarding desired behaviors. And don’t forget to jackpot reward (a handful of 8-10 treats delivered one at a time) your dog when she does something that is new or a breakthrough for her. This keeps her interest and also motivates her to focus on you, not the distraction.

How Fast will My Dog Progress?
How quickly your dog progresses through each step depends on her previous socialization to the objects/people/animals/environment (that is why it is so important to socialize them during the critical period of 7 to 16 weeks), current level of training/teamwork, motivation for reward, general resilience to new things and places, and overall confidence level among other things.

What is a Threshold?
This is the level at which your dog can no longer stay calm or focused on you with that object, person, animal or environment. She will show a few signs of stress (positive or negative) such as taking treats harder than usual (but can eat), ears forward and listening to object, eyes open wide and looking at the object -but can still be redirected by a cue or sound that you make. She should also be able to complete simple task such as sit, stand, down and nose targeting your hand. You want to start with your dog under threshold and keep her there as she learns to deal with distractions. Going above the threshold causes the training process to take longer.
 
Tiny puppies, rescue dogs and even the most focused and well-trained dogs have things that distract their attention from their job of focusing on you. So how do you add distractions to your dog’s training program while helping her to be successful?

The most effective trainers use a slow carefully thought out 4 step process.
1.Desensitize your dog to the triggers,
2. Counter condition her to them (changing how she feels about it) and
3. Train her to interact appropriately with them while giving you eye contact
4. Respond to your cues to do behaviors and tasks while in the presence of the distraction(s) then defer back to you.

All four are techniques that work best in combination for service dogs.

With some dogs, you can progress very quickly through a planned distraction. With others, you may need to spend much time at each step of a slight increase of distraction. It all depends on how much value you dog put on that particular distraction, or the combination of distractions.

You must remember that a distraction is not only something that captures your dog’s attention and draws her focus away from you, the distraction may also cause stress (anxiety, fear, excitement) in your dog. You must work through the emotional response first, (using desensitization and/or counter conditioning) before your dog can offer her attention to you.

In the first stages of training anything new, give your dog a chance to improve. If he starts at about a 30% success rate, he should quickly progress to 80% success. If his success rate is lower than that to start, or he doesn’t progress rapidly, you’ll have to break each step into smaller steps he can achieve. The same as with task training, it is the trainer’s job to help the dog succeed.

The rule of 4 comes in handy here. If your dog is not successful, break that step into 2 smaller pieces and then each of those into 2 smaller pieces. Once your dog has achieved 80%, it’s time to increase the criteria. Remember that several short sessions are better than one long one. Give him play breaks, crate him, or take him out of the stressful environment if you plan to be there for a longer period- for example if you must drive a distance and want to make your time at the location worthwhile. Don’t forget, it takes a lot for you to focus as well, so you need a break from your dog too!

When your dog can calmly focus on you and do some simple behaviors (nose touch, sit, a cued glance, etc) for you with the distractions nearby, it is time to move on to asking for a progression of more complex service-oriented tasks. Work towards his returning his attention to you after each task. The click or mark and reward will help with that, but by intermittently rewarding for eye contact, you can have a dog that is attending to you.

General Rules of Distraction Training:
A. Set your dog up for success! The key idea here is that the increments of change must be small enough that your dog can take them in stride. This is called working under threshold. If your dog starts to become distracted and I unable to complete the behavior or task you cued, you have raised the criteria too fast for her needs. That is an example of working above threshold.

B. Remember to use high value rewards when adding a high value distraction or one that she has never trained with before successfully.

C. Use distance as your friend, then decrease it in small increments as your dog demonstrates he can handle being closer to the object/animal/person.

D. Start with low value distractors and increase in slightly higher value steps. You will need to brainstorm a list of things that capture your dog’s attention (smells, sounds, things he sees) and prioritize them. If you can separate out the pieces of each distraction: for example a horse: sounds of neighing, smell, sight since for some dogs one of these will be more of a trigger than others and you will need to work separately on it.

E. Start with stationary things, then add a slight motion and move to greater motion.

F. Start with quiet things, then increase sound in small increments.

G. Start with non-smelly objects and increase the intensity of the smell. For example, instead of using a live bird, pet it first and c/t for your dog smelling your hands and staying calm. Next wrap the bird in a towel for a few minutes and lay the towel down where your dog can smell it. Present the empty cage for your dog to smell. Then add the bird.

H. Start with one distraction, then add another, in increments of one or two as you dog shows you she can be successful with it.

For Locations with Multiple Distractions

i). Train a few of the distractions individually first, then together in various combinations, if possible.
ii). Start in a familiar environment if at all possible, then move to less familiar location to continue training.
iii) Train at the location when no-one is there to build familiarity with the physical environment.
iv). Start at the periphery of a location, (walking on the edge of the action, for example, before moving slightly towards the center.)
v). Start with low density (for example, choose events with fewer people more spread out, then progress to slightly more dense situations (move to an area in the event where people are closer together or a more popular event).

Over-Training
Train for the worst-case scenario and you will also be prepared for anything! This is called over-training. Since working in public can be so unpredictable, it is important that we train way above any expected criterion for distraction level. We do not want to floor or traumatize our dog, but by incrementally increasing our distraction criterion, we can bring our dogs into the realm of bombproof (assuming they have a resilient temperament to start with.) 

Proofing For Distractions
In order to keep your dog current, it is a good idea to refresh training uncommon distractions periodically. How often is up to the time you have and how reactive/focused on you your dog is or you can refresh training for specific distractions before you intend to revisit a location.