Puppies and Distractions and How to Prepare Your Puppy
Puppies and distractions and the idea of training your puppy for the environment is far too often overlooked, but this is the part of puppy training that will determine your dog’s reactions and your dog’s life in general, in various different situations.
Dog training has been evolving for centuries and right now we have knowledge and we can do things with our dogs that 60 or more years ago, we could only dream about. But even though we have all that knowledge, we still base most training concepts on these older ways that are incompatible with the newer training approaches.
Dog training concepts in today’s world are mostly based in levels and stages such as:
- puppy socialization
- the learning phase
- the generalization phase
- dealing with distractions
- the maintenance phase
We tend to separate puppy socialization from the other levels of learning and most training programs are only introduced to dogs after their puppy socialization period. This means that puppies and distractions have already collided and the opportunity to introduce the dog to the world, the way we want him to see it has already passed, and so we can only start by training behaviors first, and then later add in distractions during the generalization phase.
The concept of first training the behaviors and then dealing with puppies and distractions and the environment originally comes from the escape avoidance (compulsion) dog training methods where a dog was set up for failure in order to “correct” him so that he will know to offer a particular behavior in the future in similar situations.
New methods (reward-based training, clicker training, etc.) have the opposite approach. You set up the scenario (involving puppies and distractions) at a given distance and level so that your dog can succeed and access a reward and then you start gradually increasing distractions, environmental stressors, etc.This is just another approach to the same subject, but it is still training backwards meaning that you are still first training the behaviors, and then teaching those behaviors in the environment.
In conjunction with this, any knowledgeable dog trainer knows that you don’t work on more than one criterion at a time. There is also the known issue of when an animal faces a new, unfamiliar environment. In dolphin training this is known as “new tank syndrome”. When you place a dolphin in a new tank, it seems as though he forgets everything he knew, until he becomes comfortable with the new environment. Similar things happen to dogs, if they are overwhelmed by the environment, they tend to “not listen” or disobey.
Ultimately, if you start out during the puppy socialization period with introducing the puppy to distractions and the environment, and teach your dog the proper response to these scenarios, you will then be teaching forwards. First introducing your dog to the world and then showing him what you expect of him within it.
Competing with the environment
This is the situation that most dog owners and competitors encounter in their daily lives, the situation where they are “unable” to reach their animal (they can’t get the engagement and attention), and it seems that any communication in general is out of the question.
A reason for this lays in the fact that the dog responds to the environment through a combination of instinctual patterns and learned patterns (you can find out more about this in the Dog behavior part of the website). And most importantly, a reason for this is that the dog was either left alone to deal with the environment (therefore needing to create a behavior pattern for a specific situation), or he simply missed out on learning it when it was the time to do so.
Once you face the situation in which you are competing with an environmental stressor in order to get your dog’s attention, be ready to lose that battle. In this case, puppies and distractions only lead to two possible outcomes and both of them are not such good scenarios.
In the first scenario, you will probably lose communication with your dog, all of the attempts will fail and your dog will simply choose the distraction in the environment, over you. The bad thing about this scenario is that:
- you have no control over your dog
- you are actually training your dog that it is okay to disengage and pursue the distractions your dog is getting frustrated with you, and he is actually learning to ignore you more and more. Often you will see people asking their dogs to sit or down, and the dogs will simply look around their handler like they don’t even exist. This is a result of frustration built up throughout months or years.
The second scenario is that you will gain your dog’s focus for a limited amount of time and you will get him to perform sit or down command. The problem with this is:
- you are still building frustration (by competing with the environment)
- your dog will start getting frustrated with the obedience exercises that you are trying to use, as well
- in most cases, the dog will break the position, which only teaches him that it is okay to break the command.
If you use corrections in a case when you are competing with the environment, you will not benefit from them. Your dog will actually learn to be scared of you, or even more frustrated with you. Corrections don’t explain to him that the environmental stressors are bad or that they are the reason for getting the correction. He will connect the correction with you instead; therefore you will lose even more “value” in those situations.
TIP: Most people have the wrong approach to the subject of dogs. Our dogs are not aware of the fact that we are their “owners”; to them (especially in the first few months of life) we represent just a part of the environment. And it is crucial how we represent ourselves to our dogs. One of the biggest problems with classically set up puppy socialization classes and environments, is that dogs learn to get excited at the presence of external triggers like other dogs and humans.
The more they get excited (and therefore rewarded by the interaction with other dogs and people), the more they will seek out those occasions. In the end, this will become a big problem as the dog will increase those behaviors and they will get harder and harder to manage.
Puppies and distractions: how to do it right
As mentioned above, in most cases we do things backwards, first training the behaviors, then dealing with the world. Dogs, just like any other animal in the world, need to be introduced to the environmental stressors first, prior to training.
Puppies and distractions are the nuts and bolts of puppy socialization. Missing out on these steps, will lead to difficulty as you will be trying to back track later on and this can sometimes be impossible. I mention repeatedly the fact that your puppy’s socialization will determine if you will have a successful relationship with your dog, and how your dog will “see” the environment. It is your responsibility to introduce the world to your dog, the way you want him to see it. If you introduce engagement, focus and a solid relationship during these formative weeks, you will be setting your dog up for success later on. When working with puppies and distractions during this crucial development period, you can shape your dog’s future behaviors and build up certain drives and instincts and lessen or even extinguish others.
Everything in a dog’s life has a specific time when it is best to be introduced. For example, if you introduce a five week old puppy to a gunshot noise, he will not react to it, but do it to an eight or nine week old puppy and you will get a fearful response. The reason is that after five weeks the onset of fear develops in dogs.
Dogs need to learn how to deal with environmental stressors during the socialization period. For example, if you create a few situations (in different environments) where your puppy will face weird, strange objects on the floor that may get him concerned and you go through this “exposure” in a positive way, so that he doesn’t see these objects as threatening (you can do this by just playing around them with your puppy), your puppy will start ignoring these distractions and will stay engaged with you in the future.
If your dog went through puppyhood without a sufficient level of proper exposure to certain situations he will react instinctively (fear-based reactions) when exposed to something new. A dog will either try to run away from the situation or react aggressively towards it.
TIP: By successfully introducing puppies and distractions, your dog benefits in multiple ways:
- he learns how to deal with different obstacles in the environment
- he learns to control the fearful response in various different situations
- you are building an engagement and trust with your dog, while going through different environments and distractions
- he learns how to react and behave in various different scenarios and situations, etc.
In the end, by working with puppies and distractions properly, you can help create a successful relationship and foundation for all of your dog’s future learning.
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