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Dog trainers will always tell you that when you begin teaching your dog new skills, you should ensure that there is nothing else going on that might distract your dog.  In reality, this is not that simple.  You can’t control all the factors that influence your dog at any given time.


Distractions are everywhere,  and the word ‘distraction’ can itself be misleading.  The scientists amongst you will be familiar with the term ‘variables’  but for many people, this concept may be a bit unfamiliar.  So let’s find out how understanding the variables at work in dog training can make life a whole lot easier for you and your dog.

What is a variable

Anything which has an effect on your dog training session,  and on how quickly or easily your dog learns,  is a variable.  Some of these variables are things that you might term ‘distractions’ like kids playing,  or rabbits hopping about.  Some variables are changes in the environment,  or in the level of difficulty of the task, you are asking the dog to carry out.
There are lots of different variables conspiring to trip you up,  whenever you train your dog.   Here are a few of them
  • Duration of the task
  • Weather (especially wind)
  • Emotional state (you and/or the dog!)
  • Distance between you and the dog
  • Presence or absence of other people
  • Presence or absence of other dogs
  • Sight or sound of vehicles/machinery
  • Novel  locations, terrain
  • The speed at which other people, dogs or vehicles are traveling
  • Presence of farm animals
  • Presence of game or wildlife
  • The proximity of farm animals, game, or wildlife
You can probably think of others.
How much influence a variable will have on your dog depends on the level of the variable balanced against the dog’s exposure to it.   For example, dogs are very distracted by wind.  The stronger the wind,  the more distracted they become.  Until that is,  they have been trained regularly in windy conditions.
Each variable will act as a ‘brake’  on the dog’s learning, the more intense the variable,  the more powerful the brake.  Whilst the more the dog has been trained in the presence of that variable,  the weaker the power of the brake.

One variable at a time

Dogs learn best and with least corrections,  when only one variable is altered at a time.  It is not a good idea to increase the duration of a task at the same time as making it more difficult for example. If you increase the length of your dog’s sit from 1 minute to 2 minutes,  you would not introduce ‘hiding’  from him at the same time,  or take him to a brand new training location to do the extra-long sit.  The novelty of the location,  or your disappearance, are both variables that can put a ‘brake’ on your dog’s ability to learn.  The more time he has spent at this new location,  the less of a braking effect the different locations will have on his ability to pay attention and learn.
You can see that if you are teaching your dog to walk to heel off the lead, it is not a good idea to do it when your neighbor has their grandchildren round to play on the other side of the fence for the first time.    Every time you teach a new thing, try to keep other new things out of the equation,  and every time you go to a new place or put your dog in a new situation,  let him practice skills he knows ‘off by heart’.
Dogs also learn best when there is a ‘balance’ in the variables present in your training session on any given day.

Balancing your variables

When you introduce a brand new variable,  it makes training much harder for your dog.  You need to balance this by ensuring that all the other variables are made very simple.   If you are introducing your dogs to walking off-lead at heel past other dogs,  have the other dogs standing still, to begin with,  then walking slowly,  don’t begin by walking him at heel past other dogs that are playing Frisbee or leaping about in his favorite stream.
This applies even if you know his recall or sit is really solid amongst other dogs.  Let him focus on the new thing,  and keep all the other demands on him to a minimum
This is where planning ahead really helps.  If you think about how many variables are involved in what you are trying to achieve with your dog in any one session,  you may be surprised at just how much you are asking him to take on board.

New skills in old places, old skills in new places

Whilst much of this is common sense it is easy to forget just how much is going on around you and your dog when you are training.   You can’t control every variable,  but you can control what you expect of your dogs.  If you can remember to always start training new skills in familiar places and to train familiar skills in new places or under new conditions,  you won’t go far wrong.

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