Flashback Friday: Dog Distraction

Unlike last week’s post, this one will be a little more light-hearted. I’m going to explain how The Seeing Eye trains their dogs to ignore other dogs int heir area and stay focused on their work.

Original Post Date: 6/9/2009

Dog walkers, other service dogs, and dogs in yards all pose potential distractions to working dogs. Dogs are social creatures, genetically hard-wired to interact and communicate with each other. Teaching working dogs to ignore other potential pack-mates is very challenging, but an important aspect of their preparation to enter the work force.

This is all the more important today because of the growing prevalence of pet-friendly stores and wider array of conditions which can be supported by service dogs. However well a pet at Home Depot or a PTSD dog might be, it’s still a potential pack-mate. Genetics are in play.

To explain how Seeing Eye dogs are trained to ignore their instincts, I’m going to use an example. Juno is, of course, our working dog. Fluffy will be our civilian dog. Here’s how Juno learns to ignore Fluffy:

Step 1: Passive Dog

As Juno and an instructor work their way down a sidewalk, another instructor and Fluffy sit in a driveway or another wider point of the sidewalk. Juno is encouraged to “hup-up” and continue working. If she turns to look at Fluffy, or otherwise acknowledges Fluffy’s existence, the instructor Corrects Juno and they retreat back the way they’d come, then repeat their attempt to pass Fluffy.

Instructors will only attempt the pass a total of three times per session before giving Juno a break, either working on a different skill or just chilling. This ensures Juno doesn’t get too frustrated, improving the odds of success. trainees are encouraged to use this strategy when re-working errors, too.

When Juno successfully passes Fluffy without acknowledgement or hesitation, she gets praised and maybe a few treats to positively reinforce the behavior. Once she can do this consistently, it’s time to up the pressure.

Steph 2: Active Dog Distraction

The setup is the same for step 2, but the pressure is increased. As Juno and her instructor walk past Fluffy and his instructor, she is praised for ignoring Fluffy. But then, Fluffy’s instructor commands him to get up and start following Juno! Again, Juno is corrected for looking back, and praised for keeping her ears, eyes, and nose forward.

Again, this is repeated in sets of three until Juno can reliably ignore Fluffy behind her.

As I have learned more about canine psychology I’ve begun to realize that, due to their natural pack structure, having a dog following another dog is actually pretty normal to them. But perhaps TSE’s graduates might be better served if they trained Juno to be comfortable with a dog approaching her head on, where it’s almost impossible to avoid eye contact. Managing arousal with a distraction coming straight at you, and possibly trying to engage you, seems both more time-consuming but also more relevant to the team’s needs.

Neither Prada nor Greta performed well during our dog distraction tests in training. These tests were repetitions of Step 1 and Step 2 along our routes, and both of my dogs had to re-work both scenarios. I was told that it’s normal for the dogs to back-slide a little when training with their future human partners. Essentially, i was told they’d get over it, but neither of them did.

Prada’s distraction never escalated to the point where it interfered with her work for more than a couple of frustrating seconds of redirection, but Greta has, as described In her own words here, had had considerable trouble. However, I know plenty of graduates who never had dog distraction issues so, despite the one potential flaw in dog distraction training mentioned above, I don’t think the problem lies with TSE’s methods.

It’s taken me a while, and a lot of therapy, but I no longer blame myself for failing to elicit flawless behavior from my dogs, either. In Prada’s case I didn’t do much self-education beyond what TSE told me, so I didn’t know how to smooth out her training. And Greta…well, there’s no accounting for Post High School Stress Disorder, which capitalized on her pre-existing tendency toward dog distraction.

Every dog is different. Some dogs simply have a stronger pack drive, and thus require continual training maintenance from a Knowledgeable, consistent partner. It’s taken me a while, but I have reached that point. If my next dog has dog distraction issues, I’ll know how to handle it.

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