Is Your Dog Easily Distracted on a Walk?

You're on a walk, engaging your loose leash techniques, when out of nowhere, a low-flying, delicious bird! Keep your pup calm with our tips.

Casey Lomonaco  |  Jul 3rd 2012

We’ve been discussing techniques and strategies for improving your dog’s behavior on a walk, covering leash manners and perfect loose-leash walking. This week, we round out the series with tips on dealing with distractions (Squirrel! Bicycle! Other dog!) you may encounter.

7 Tips for Dealing with Distractions on a Walk

  1. Increase your distance. Reactive dog owners should be intimately familiar with this one. It may be a challenge for your dog to pass another dog at a distance of 10 feet, but he may be able to pass another dog at 30 feet with no trouble. If you are concerned about passing a distraction without pulling, create distance as quickly as possible. It can be helpful to teach a “Let’s go” cue, so that you can create distance quickly without yanking on your dog’s leash.
  2. Increase your speed. Dried-out nasty chicken bones on the sidewalk? Your dog may make a beeline for them if you walk past at a snail’s pace, but many dogs will happily run past an item they could otherwise not walk past.
  3. Increase the value of your reinforcement. While your dog may tune out you and your kibble when traffic is heavy, you might find that he will work wonderfully around traffic for higher-value treats like a favorite squeaky toy, cheese, chicken, or bits of leftover steak. Save the kibble for rewarding your dog on calmer portions of the walk.
  4. Increase your rate of reinforcement. In less distracting environments, your dog may no longer need frequent treats while out and about. If you come across a huge distraction, like a biker, you may choose to reinforce your dog with a high-value treat for every step during the training stages to get him past the distraction without pulling.
  5. Body block! Dogs who are taught skills like hand targeting or “go around” can easily be cued to walk on the other side of your body, which makes you a physical and visual barrier separating your dog from the distraction.
  6. Cue an alternative behavior. I often use a well-taught hand target (“Follow my hand with your nose”) to get my dogs past distractions on a walk. This only works if the behavior of hand targeting has already been taught and proofed for reliability around distractions.
  7. Premack it! Mokie, my Chow mix, loves sticking her nose into gopher holes. No treat or toy can possibly compete with the excitement of this particular event for Her Royal Chowness, so we use the Premack Principle. This asserts that more probable behavior (sniffing gopher holes) can be used to reinforce less probable behavior (leash manners). If her leash goes tight approaching the gopher hole, I stop, wait for her to come back to my side, and then begin reapproaching. She can check out the gopher hole, but only if her leash is loose on the entire approach! Here is a great video from my friend Pamela Johnson on how to use the Premack Principle. This technique is fantastic for dogs who tend to be too distracted to take even high-value treats.

Be aware that these techniques are not mutually exclusive -– I may decide to throw my dog a hand target and increase my speed and body block. Experiment with each of these techniques, individually and in combination with other techniques, to find out which will work best for your dog.

That wraps up this series on loose-leash walking, but it’s such a popular training request among pet owners that I’d love to hear any questions you have in the comments. Happy Fourth of July and happy training!