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Advancing Your Dog’s Skills: 3-D training (Distance, Duration, and Distractions)

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Are you and your inquisitive canine sometimes struggling to reach your training goals? It might help to think about how you can amp up your teaching skills by adjusting the three D’s: 

  • Distance – the space between you and your dog, or your dog and whatever other target (object, person, place, etc.) is part of the training plan.
  • Duration – the length of time you are asking your dog to perform a behavior.
  • Distractions – anything and everything that could appear or occur within your environment. This category includes (but is not limited to) sounds or smells coming from places your dog can’t visualize but can sense.

Now, let’s explore how even small changes in one or more of these categories can help bring your dog training to the next level.

boxer dog lying down cafe

DISTANCE

Distance, when applied to dog training, is exactly what you’d expect! How does the amount of space between, either the dog and the handler, or the dog and a distraction, affect a pup’s ability to respond to a cued behavior?

For example, distance is a critical factor when teaching a recall cue. It may be easy for a dog to come when called when you’re standing indoors in the same room. But if Fluffy is outside, 10 or 20 feet away, it’s more challenging. The following tips utilize adjusting distance to refine your recall training:

  • One option for getting Fluffy to come running to you is practicing hand-targeting, or touch.  Initially, work within a small area, then slowly increase first distance, then distractions.
  • If you’re adding distance to your recall, make sure the distraction level is lower than, or comparable to, what it has been.
  • When initial recall exercises are going well, try to practice off leash, in a secure area, with a few distractions.

On the other hand, sometimes being closer to a trigger or temptation competing for Fluffy’s attention can increase the difficulty of a behavior (like Leave It). The closer such an item or individual is to your dog, the more challenging it might be for her to focus on you and respond to cues.

Now you can see how without the practice of gradually increasing the distance between handler and pup, and/or gradually closing the gap between pup and an exciting object or stimulus, it’s unrealistic to expect dogs to respond reliably in real-life situations. Pro tip: For tough skills like Recall and Leave It, in addition to the 3 Ds, remember to have fun and stay generous with your praise and rewards.

DURATION

With duration in dog training, we’re asking our inquisitive canines to do something for a specific amount of time. Many of the things we ask dogs to do are behaviors that we would like them to start, and then keep doing until cued to stop. Sit, Stay, and Wait are good examples. What good is a Sitif your inquisitive canine pops right back up? To help practice Sit, Stay, or Wait with duration:

  • Work on increasing duration when Fido’s going to his place (or bed or crate), or when you’re picking up the ball to play fetch. 
  • Remember to use a cue, like “you’re free,” to clearly release your dog from the behavior each time. Consistency is key.
  • If you’re upping the duration of a requested Sit/Stay/Wait, do so in a less distracting area first.
  • And if you’re working on harder distractions, don’t expect as much duration from your canine pupil. Self-control can be a limited resource!

DISTRACTIONS

We live in a distracting world, and it’s doubly so for our pet dogs. We expect a lot from them – ignore that smell, leave that pile of garbage alone, pay no mind to that barking dog behind the fence. Distractions are everywhere, and it can be hard for your dog to focus on your cues when the world is so very interesting. So, it’s important to gradually incorporate controlled distractions into your training. A great example of this concept is when you’re working on loose leash walking:

  • For loose leash walking, it makes sense to start training in a quiet area inside the home.
  • Then move to a more distracting indoor area.
  • Then take it outdoors to the least distracting part of the backyard.
  • Then move your training games to the driveway.
  • Then to the sidewalk in front of the house.
  • Then down the street, and so on.
  • Remember to increase the rate and/or value of reinforcement when the distractions increase, or whenever keeping the leash loose becomes more challenging for your pup.

While having your dog’s undivided attention is an excellent start, pet parents being aware and present is equally important. To help minimize your own level of distraction while teaching your pup necessary life skills:

  • Adjust your training plan and schedule as needed so that you can offer the same degree of engagement you expect from your pup.
  • When training, close the laptop; put your phone away; turn off the television.
  • If you are distracted and not able to train when people visit, manage the environment to help Fido from practicing behaviors you don’t like or want. 
  • Do your best to be aware of the distractions around your dog and adjust your expectations accordingly.

To summarize, here are key points about harnessing the concepts of Distance, Duration and Distractions:

  • Go slowly. When dogs seem to hit a snag in their training, perhaps the handlers have just upped the ante a bit too fast. Take a step back (or closer), make things easier, and try again. What the 3-D training concepts all have in common is that gradual change is critical to success.
  • One at a time. If you’re making one of the 3-D variables harder, it helps to make the others easier, or at least leave them the same, increasing only one ‘D’ at a time.
  • ‘D’ is for difficulty too. For behaviors your dog is already skilled at, only increase the difficulty once they’ve excelled at the easier level.
  • Reinforce strategically. During beginning stages of training, especially new behaviors or changes in the routine, increase the rate and/or value of reinforcement.

I hope this deep dive into training concepts inspires you to seek pawsitive, practical solutions to everyday challenges and enhance the bond you have with your inquisitive canine.

Here’s to unleashing adventures and harnessing fun in all your dog training endeavors!

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