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Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Tuesday's Training TIP: Dealing with Natural Distractions

At nine months old, after two puppy classes at Leader Dogs for the Blind, FLD Mike has been taught many of the commands that he must know before returning to the school for his formal training, including: heel, sit, down, stand, stay, come, around, give, take, right, left, mat, leave it, and park.  For the most part, FLD Mike performs these consistently in a variety of settings.  However, add some big distractions (like dogs or kids), and "the captain has left the wheelhouse," to quote from John Grogan's famous book, Marley and MeFLD Mike quickly forgets how to heel on a loose leash, sit or lie down, and forget about getting him to "come"--it's as if he's never learned any of these commands.  If you've ever trained one of these loveable Labs, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about!

Our daily walks offer excellent opportunities for me to address FLD Mike's distraction issues.  When we come across a situation, I use techniques from our puppy class to regain FLD Mike's attention and help him learn to make correct decisions.


The techniques I employed in the following scenario include:
  • the command "leave it"
  • backwards walking to accomplish loose-leash heeling
  • name recognition
  • physical diversions (leash tug and finger poke)
  • verbal encouragement
  • diverting commands (giving him something else to focus on)
Less than two blocks into our walk the other day, FLD Mike and I approached a house with three small dogs yipping behind the fence at the top of the driveway.  Mike, of course, craned his head in their direction and wandered off course toward them, eager to play.

Mike. Leave it, I said as I slowed our pace.  FLD Mike pulled to the end of his leash.  I took a step or two backwards until he glanced at me and stopped pulling.

Mike. Heel.  I took a few steps forward with FLD Mike in a nice heel and stopped on the sidewalk at the end of the driveway.  Mike stopped too, but strained against his leash toward the now-frantic doggies.

Next technique:  name recognitionMike.  But FLD Mike was oblivious.

I gave a light tug on his leash.  FLD Mike almost turned his head around to look at me, but before I could verbally encourage his avoidance with a "good boy," his focus was back on the three dogs.  My timing was off--I missed the opportunity to motive Mike away from the distraction.

I poked FLD Mike on his rear haunches with my finger.  This got him to move his rear end away to glance back at me with a look that said, "What?  Can't you see I'm busy here?"  Before he could swing his head back toward the dogs, I loudly praised him in my best "baby-talk" voice:  Good boy, Mike!  That's it!  His tail wagged half-heartedly as he momentarily lost interest in the still-yipping dogs.  I kept talking in my high-pitched, silly voice.  That's such a good boy, Mike!  Isn't it nice to take a walk today?  You don't care about those little dogs, do you?  Mike's tail wagged with enthusiasm, the tension on his leash eased, and he gave me his full attention.

Now that I had his focus on me, I said, Mike. Sit.  I mentally counted one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand, while he thought about it and finally sat.  More praise!  Good sit, Mike!

FLD Mike gave a fleeting look at the three frenzied dogs, but I quickly gave him another command.  Mike. Down.  Mike loves to do "down," so I knew he would follow through with this command.  Mike. Stay.  I gave him a hand signal (open palm facing him) as I stepped away to the end of  his leash.  His eyes followed me; I returned to his side.  Good stay, Mike!  I continued working commands like this (Mike. Stand.  Mike. Down.  Mike. Sit.) until FLD Mike was obviously tuned in to me, and not the yipping dogs.

Mike. Heel.  On our way, ready for the next distraction.

MEET AND GREET / Kid Distraction

In this next scenario, FLD Mike needs to learn to stay calm when we approach a stranger.  Add a kid distraction and I had my hands full!

From a few houses away, I spied a toddler and her grandmother playing with a bouncy-ball in the front yard between the porch and the sidewalk.  A perfect opportunity to practice a "meet and greet."

When FLD Mike saw them, he immediately strained forward against his leash.  I immediately took some backwards steps.  He stopped pulling; we continued.  He pulled; I walked backwards.  After three or four attempts at forward progress, FLD Mike finally held himself in check with a loose-leash heel.  I slowed my pace and stopping in front of the house with the little girl.

FLD Mike tried to yank me forward; I was prepared and held him back.  Mike. Sit, I commanded, but he was too distracted.  I did not repeat the command; rather, I physically put Mike into a sit and held him there with a taut leash until he stopped straining.  Good sit, Mike!

With FLD Mike shivering with interest at my side, I chatted with the grandmother who was standing several feet away.  The toddler wandered close to her grandmother, curious about the big, black doggie.  Good boy, Mike.    I was pleased he was controlling himself.  My eyes were on the cute little girl.  Suddenly, Mike lunged, unable to contain himself any longer.  I had a tight hold on his leash and snapped him back.  NO! Mike. Sit.  Again, I had to physically put him back into a sit.

I missed another chance to "catch" FLD Mike before he reacted.

I took a deep breath.

With FLD Mike in a sit, I continued my chat with the grandmother, yet kept my attention on him.  When Mike settled, I said bye-bye to the little girl.  Mike. Heel.  We were on our way again.

Whether FLD Mike and I are on a walk, shopping in the grocery store, picking up a book from the library, or enjoying a leisurely Sunday morning breakfast at the corner restaurant, I try to take advantage of natural training opportunites.  I use techniques like name recognition to keep FLD Mike's focus on me and attention to his job at hand--heeling calmly at my left side, presenting a friendly, yet not overbearing presence, and settling patiently when I pause.

It is my job to stay centered on FLD Mike, anticipate distractions, remain consistent with my expectaions, and make the necessary effort to help him succeed.  Sometimes I am successful.  Sometimes I struggle and it seems as though I need as much practice as FLD Mike does!  Together, we do the best we can to prepare him for his return to Leader Dogs for the Blind on September 13.

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