You train our dog at home, often in the same spot – the kitchen usually. And why not? You and your dog spend a lot of time there, that’s where the treats are, it’s convenient. And guess what? Your dog learns to sit, lie down and pay attention perfectly. It all goes so darn well!
Then you take her outside, and everything falls apart.
For one thing, you must take into consideration the impact that the distractions in new environments have on your dog. It really is all about location, location, location such that I regularly suggest to my students: “if you want your dogs to behave in 10 places you need to train them in 100 places.”
But, just as important as working with your dog in a variety of locations (and situations), you must also remember to address the three “Ds” of training: duration, distance, distractions.
Using the sit-stay behavior as an example, you cannot walk away from your dog (distance), thus putting the sit-stay to good use, if your dog is unable to sit and not move for any length of time; likewise, you cannot expect your dog to sit and stay while someone rides by on a bike (distractions) if she is unable to sit and not move for any length of time. So, out of necessity, the first criterion to teach your dog is duration.
Before you can expect your dog to sit and stay while you walk away from her, or before you can expect her not to be phased by moving objects, noises, smells, and other distractions, you first must make sure that she can sit and stay with you standing right next to her, facing the same direction she is (this is “heel” position and it’s helpful to think of it as your home base when working on sit, stand and down stays) for increasingly longer periods of time. In other words, you first must work on duration for the behavior so it will hold up when you’re not close to your dog and when distractions are present.
Can your dog do the sit-stay in heel position while you count to 10 or 20? How about for 30 seconds? For one minute? If not, then she is not ready to do it while you walk away from her (distance) or when another dog walks past her (distractions). You must first increase the duration that your dog can hold the behavior before you can hope to have success with the other criteria.
Once you have developed duration for the behavior of sit-stay, then you are ready to start working on the second criterion: distance. So, with your dog in heel position, tell her to stay, take one step to your side, then return to heel position and reward her. Next, tell her to stay, pivot in front and face her or step to the other side of her before you return to heel position and reward her, and so on. Each time your dog is successful and does not move her feet when you change your position, it’s important to praise and reward her after you return to heel position. As things go well, take two steps away from your dog, then three, etc. Always return to heel position to praise/reward success. As you start increasing the distance you go away from your dog, the duration will also increase, so it’s essential that your dog learned to sit-stay for longer moments before you try to tackle distance.
When your dog understands how to sit and stay 1) for longer periods of time and 2) while you go further away from her, you can start working on the third criterion: distractions. When introducing distractions, initially you will want to decrease the duration of the behavior by rewarding and releasing more frequently (maybe even after each repetition), and you will want to decrease distance by remaining close to your dog. Also, at first choose “easy” distractions for your dog the handle such as you waving at your dog, clapping, squatting down in front of her while within your arm’s length of her. Reward each time your dog is successful. As you make the distractions more challenging (dropping something, having another person approach, having another person bounce or roll a ball past your dog, squeaking a toy, etc.), stay close to your dog and, as before, be ready to reward her when she doesn’t move. When your dog manages to sit and stay in one spot, in the face of challenging distraction, with you in close proximity to her, you can start increasing both duration and distance to levels you achieved previously and beyond. Remember to work on one criterion at a time. The last thing you want to do is allow your dog to practice a mistake; taking things one step – or one criterion – at a time (baby steps as we so often say) allows your dog to comprehend what you’re trying to teach her.
No matter what behavior you are working on with your dog, success boils down to the logical and systematic ebb and flow of the three criteria: duration, distance, distractions.
First you must establish duration, then lower duration while building distance; then re-establish duration while continuing to build distance; then lower duration and distance while adding a distraction; then build duration and distance again with that distraction; then lower duration and distance when adding a new distraction; then build duration and distance again with the new distraction, etc. When all is going well in familiar places, you are ready to start the process all over again in a new location. The good news is that eventually your dog will generalize her behavior to dozens of locations and you won’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you go some place new. Until then, however, skipping steps and assuming your dog will know how to do something well at PetSmart just because she did it perfectly in your kitchen is both unfair and unrealistic.
The process for training and proofing behaviors is simple but not easy, but over time and with each new behavior it does become more intuitive and considerably less overwhelming. And the result of a well-trained dog with solid, bomb-proof behaviors is well worth the effort of paying attention to the three Ds of dog training.