Distance, and Distraction Resistance

   This month’s video topic is distraction resistance. This is Trix taking a nice mark to her go out target. But that one second in time, as nice as it looks, is not sufficient to get her safely out on a straight line for 50 feet in a busy place.
You can’t add distance in training any exercise until you have discussed distraction resistance close up and one SKILL at a time. Think about what it means to the dog and to the result you get. The dog has to know what the job is well enough and have enough self-confidence to respond to a cue quickly and confidently after a distraction occurs. He has to be able to experience a distraction that happens DURING a task, and show enough commitment to stay on the task anyway. Ideally, he will learn the job well and assume responsibility for ignoring a distraction, but that is something we have to HOPE for, not something we can necessarily expect to be a consistent reality. The one thing I can guarantee is that if you don’t actually take the time to teach distraction resistance skills, your dog won’t develop them by magic.

In the video of the training session, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=haDX6Rdi6ZI  , the dog does the same things over and over. But my focus and actions shift through the progressions. Here is the process.

   First, I remind the dog what her job is, which in this case is to go to the stanchion I point at, touch it, and sit. Note that we are working close to the target so the task is very obvious. Then I focus on her response to my directional signal. Now the cycle of my production of distractions becomes the point of this article.

   I cause a distraction first; I let her recover, and then I give her the signal to look, and if she does it right, I send her to the go out. That first repetition tells me what the base level of her distractability and recovery rate is. It is what it is, it’s not a good or bad judgement. My goal in each session from beginning to end is to reduce the level of her distractability, and increase her recovery rate. I repeated this with distractions on both sides of her. As you’ll see in the video, this dog is pretty reflexive in her response to the noise or motion, so we never see her being unresponsive to the distraction, but you can see her reduce the amount of focus intensity and time toward the distraction as she begins to anticipate that she is going to get to do the go out. For this dog, that is improvement. It was consistent, so we moved on.

   The next step was to test her commitment to the mark. I gave her the signal, then caused the distraction. Based on the prior step, I expected her to react to the distraction, and she didn’t disappoint me. I was ready to tell her, “No, look.” and extend the signal a bit. Once again, with repetition she got less responsive to the distraction, but never non-responsive. But she was able to return to task accurately and follow through with the next part of it, the go out itself.

   We also worked on her ability to continue a go out if the distraction happened while she was moving. She had the opportunity to see the distractions land well off of her path and choose to complete the go out or to veer off and check out the distractions. She did a good job of staying on task with only brief reflexive looks at the stuff, but this was helped by our closeness to the target with a prior strong history of rewards for getting to it.  You’ll also see a challenge to the sit, and her ability to do the sit and pay attention to me.

   Later on in the same session, not on camera, we added distance to the go out. At each interval of distance, I went back to the beginning of the progression. Distraction first, recovery, then signal or command. After success was established, which I judged by three successful repetitions, we moved on to cue first, then distraction, and we worked through the mark, the go, and the sit.
   Now it’s important to be aware of some other choices I made. The distractions chosen were small, controllable, they caused noise and could be seen, but didn’t have any particular intrinsic value to the dog. I did have her pick them up for me a few times in the session, not something one must do, but something that ensured that she didn’t feel she needed to actively be suspicious of the items or avoid them physically except when her task directed her. Next, I need to do this same progress with toys that she enjoys playing with, and actively play with her before setting up to work the skills for the go out. I will have to be ready for failures, and I will have to make some educated guesses about how far away a tossed toy will have to land to be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one. We will have to work through food as distractions, then calm inactive dogs as distractions, and finally other dogs playing as distractions.

   It so happened that I did not need any physical compulsion to get Trix to do her job; but I do have the 100 foot long line that I might have needed as the go outs got longer had her attraction to the target been weakened enough by distance away from it to cause her to succumb to distractions. Had we needed to do that, I would have put the long line on and shown her the correction to keep going from very close to the target first, complete with distractions as already seen. Then I would have backed up a few feet at a time, and used a bit of collar pressure at the beginning of each send to remind her that she needed to stick to her task.  The underlying concept is to be ready to control your outcome somehow, even at distance, because distance IS a factor in many exercises that causes erroneous behaviors that do not happen when you are close to the dog, or when the dog is close to the objective of the task. For signals, going close to the dog to practice the signal again or to correct a failure often does not really improve the dog’s response to your signals at a distance. You need a long line to help the dog work harder at his job, and you may need bigger treats or toys that will fly a long distance to help motivate dogs to pay attention and zero in, even at longer distances.  It’s never wrong to go back and work close up on anything, but that often is not the answer to solving a problem that only happens at distance.

   The nature of the go out exercise in the video gives me a lot of leeway about where distractions can happen around us, but it is my job in training any exercise to keep the pathway of the task a safety zone. That principle applies to recalls, retrieves, articles, etc.. How close you can place distractions to the task pathway will vary.