Distracted Agility Dogs: Environment Focus

Finch Distracted by Sniffing the Table
Finch sniffs the table during a training session. (Photo by Katie Rogers, Smiling Wolf Photography)

Is your dog too distracted by the environment during agility training? In my last post, I compared and contrasted handler focus and obstacle focus. But in a way, there’s a third type of “focus” to consider: environment focus.

In the context of training, dogs that are displaying environment focus are distracted by what is going on around them. They could be looking for birds, sniffing the ground, or leaving work to visit other dogs.

Just like the other two types of focus, this is a training issue. Our goal is to get the dog’s environment focus as close to zero as possible while he is working with us. We want the birds, other dogs, and squirrels to fall by the wayside because he is so focused on his task that nothing else matters.

If that sounds challenging, read on – it’s not as impossible as it sounds! In this post, I outline a few things that I would have loved to have known back when I was training my first agility dog, Tessie. She had a lot of talent, but also an incredibly high level of environment focus!

Start with Desire

Begin each training session only when your dog is aroused and demonstrating the desire to focus on you. If your dog doesn’t have this desire when you go to start a training session, don’t cajole her into paying attention to you! Many handlers do this by repeating verbal cues over and over, clapping, making kissy noises, or worse: showing the dog her toy or treats.

I’ll ask once or twice for my dog’s attention. If they’re too distracted to give me attention, they certainly aren’t ready to start working on more complex training skills yet.

If your dog is so distracted that she is completely ignoring you, take gently her by the collar and put her in the crate, or tether her to something sturdy. Give her a chance to become satiated with the environment. When she looks at you, praise and offer a reward. If she takes it, you can start training.

If she won’t look at you at all, the environment is too stimulating for her at this time – move further away from what she is looking at, go back inside, or go to a smaller, quieter room of your house.

Don’t Build It In

Rule #1: Agility is a behavior chain.

Rule #2: You get what you reinforce.

Knowing these two rules, consider this scenario:

Leave your dog on the start-line in a sit-stay. Walk past the first two jumps. Turn back to look at your dog. He’s sniffing the ground and is not looking at you. You give him a verbal release cue, and he stops sniffing and starts the sequence. What did you just reinforce? The sniffing!

Is sniffing the ground part of your ideal performance? Do you want to experience a competition run where your dog pauses between obstacles to sniff but then resumes running, or zooms past an obstacle to visit the judge before returning to your side?

If the answer to these questions is “no,” then you have to be vigilant for those types of behaviors in your training sessions and not reward them. Instead, pause, go back to the start, and repeat the sequence, perhaps making it a bit easier to set your dog up for success. (If you do make it easier, be sure to go back and practice the original, difficult version of that scenario, too.)

To be clear, this stuff happens all the time, and I’m not suggesting that you panic if your generally responsive, well-trained dog sneaks in a sniff during his down on the table, or glances at his classmate when your back is turned on a lead-out. But if you have a dog who is easily distracted, you need to be vigilant and watch for these unwanted behaviors sneaking into your chains and being reinforced.

A Word About Sniffing

Sniffing can be a stress displacement behavior, also known as a calming signal. It can also be the dog’s response to being presented with a really irresistible smell. It’s important to look for stress displacement behaviors in context and in clusters. A couple examples:

Scenario #1: Your instructor allows bitches in season to participate in class. You’re the last team to run in your class. As you attempt to set up your intact male on the start line, he drops his head and starts sniffing the ground intently. After a few seconds, he looks back up at you and appears ready to work: he makes direct eye contact, his ears are up, and he is focused on you.

Scenario #2: Same class, same scenario, but after a few seconds, your dog glances up at you and then over at his classmate. When he finally makes eye contact with you, he yawns.

The dog in scenario #1 is momentarily distracted by the scent of the other dogs who sat in the same spot as he did. The sniffing is totally appropriate in that context and is not accompanied by any other stress displacement behaviors.

The dog in scenario #2 is stressed. While the sniffing alone could be an appropriate response, turning his head away, yawning, and declining to make eye contact are other stress displacement behaviors.

Where to Go From Here

If you’re ready to retrain your distracted dog, here are a few more resources that will help you along that path.

In April, Denise Fenzi wrote an excellent series of blog posts about behavior chains. The posts most related to distracted agility dogs include Part 1, about the basics of behavior chains; Part 6, about agility dogs who run away; and Part 7, about dealing with handler errors.

If your dog tends to get distracted when you stop to receive instruction from your instructor, I wrote a post outlining 5 ways to prevent your dog from rehearsing that behavior.

Remember that the key to preventing your dog from becoming distracted in the first place is to train high-quality, crystal-clear behaviors that your dog loves to have the chance to perform because of the history of reinforcement.

Happy training! :)

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