Lyra - 7 months Distractions

Yesterday’s blog was the sad tale of my failed training attempt. In short, Lyra stood on her back legs and screamed out her frustration – she wanted to go visit a dog and I was preventing that from happening.  Her behavior would have put a Toller to shame.

A few people have asked how to handle a situation like that, so I’ll take a few minutes to review what options I had at my disposal.  If you haven’t’ read the post, it’s at:

I can think of six ways that I could have responded to Lyra’s behavior:  a  physical or verbal correction, allowing her to greet the dog, a time out, redirection to a toy, or waiting her out.  Let’s look at each one.

I could have given Lrya a physical correction by popping her collar.  In Lyra’s case this would have worked for a few reasons.  First, she’s never been popped on a collar so she would have noticed it in a big way – dogs that get corrected frequently become desensitized but Lyra has not been physically corrected.   Second, Lrya does care what I think about her behavior - this is partly because of her genetics but also a result of the type of relationship we have; she values me.  Finally, Lyra’s behavior is rooted in frustration that is NOT linked to aggression.  She’s a puppy who wants what she wants – much like a toddler.  A physical correction would have broken through and would have given her something else to care about – my anger.  If frustration were closely linked to aggression in Lyra, then a physical correction would not have worked. Frustration with aggression shows as classic leash reactivity, and feeding aggression with energy or pain will make it worse.  I’ve been there; trust me.

I opted against a physical correction because my goal is not to get Lyra off her back legs with her mouth closed; my goal is to engage her brain so that she can work with all that she has to give.  Her body is a symptom of what’s happening between her ears, it is NOT the root problem.   A physical correction would have ended the symptom but…then what?  Getting her body oriented towards me does not cause the brain to follow. I’m not interested in having her eyes, I want the brain.

Lyra is a simple dog to read; when she is engaged both ears are completely up on her head, her tail is up, and her eyes are locked in.  She carries a lot of tension in her body with complete engagement of both her front and rear; you cannot mistake Lyra at her best for anything but committed.  But someone who doesn’t know Lyra could see 50% Lyra and think it’s pretty good.  Head up, eyes on mine, but maybe only one ear or no ears at all.  That’s not the partner I want, and I will not work with Lyra until I have the whole dog.   It would “suffice” if all I wanted was to get through Novice or Open with mostly good skills  but that’s not my goal; I want a dog who watches me – 50 feet away – and locks in with everything she has – eyes, ears and most important….brain.  Staring at me with no response is useless.   Dogs that are corrected for not watching their handlers are a set up for dogs that stare at their owners and do not respond to commands – they watch but aren’t really engaged. I’ve been there too. So, physical corrections are out.  Not to mention; I think physical corrections are yucky.

My next option was a verbal correction.  The basic problem is the same as the physical correction listed above (stops her behavior but does not return the brain), but it does have the added advantage of being useful when she’s off leash and at a distance.  I would have opted for this one if she had been off leash and on her way to engage in what could have been a bad or dangerous situation – then I would have gotten out of that situation.  If a verbal correction had stopped her then it is possible that she would have been receptive to training, depending on how much she cared about my displeasure.  In Lyra’s case, I believe a verbal correction may have stopped her behavior but would not have returned her brain.  Again, useless for my goal – a dog with 100% engagement.

I could have allowed Lyra to greet the dog and possibly she would have been willing to return to work once her curiousity was satisfied.  In this case that strategy would not have worked because Lyra isn’t curious, she's RIVETED.  She does not want to simply meet, she wants to play with the other dog.  If Lyra had been allowed to enter Disneyland, there would have been no getting her back to the Neighborhood Park.  Lyra will never be allowed to visit Disneyland beause I cannot compete, so why expose her to what she cannot have?  That's setting up for a fight I don’t wish to have.  I have this conversation with my students all too often - usually when it's after the fact and impossible to go back.  Don't introduce Disneyland unless you have Disneyland  on Steroids to offer.

Let’s say that Lyra had true leash reactivity with aggression; in a case like that greeting the dog often gets them over the basic anxiety which is behind a lot of aggression – she would have seen that the dog is no threat, and if she were not a very doggy dog, she may well have been happy to return to me and work.  But that is not Lyra’s situation;she is not aggressive reactive and she IS doggy, so there was no possible benefit to a meet and greet.  Even for a dog with classic aggressive leash reactivity where a visit with the other dog could neutralize their reaction, I would not recommend a greeting because you haven’t solved the problem – you have simply avoided the issue.  I like to address issues so the root cause is addressed, if at all possible.  For an example of that with fear, see my blog post on Lyra and fear of a camera person at: The discussion is the same; if you change the situation you are no longer training the same issue.

Lyra could have been placed on a time out, and indeed I did this.  I returned her to a crate in the car for a few minutes, with the hope that when we returned she would have chosen work over….nothing. Unfortunately, her drive to work is not strong enough at this age to overcome her doggy interests, so it was not effective this time.  I’d put money on the fact that it will work quite well in another month or two, especially if I get her out in public more so she’s not quite as excited and distracted when we are out.   A time out ould also have worked if I had a way to make the other dog less interesting, i.e, a greater distance, dog lying down, etc.  I also could have tried doing multiple time outs, but I was in a time crunch so I didn’t have the luxury of spending an hour there working on it.  Knowing Lyra, a greater period of time would have made it much more likely that she could have responded to me – she does tend to acclimate after a period of initial excitement.

I could have tried redirecting Lyra to food or a toy.  I did try this but she wasn’t going for it; she already knew what she wanted and it had nothing to do with me – indeed I was the root of her problem since I had the leash.

I could have waited her out.  In lyra’s case, this probably would have worked.  I know this beause I’ve used this with her in the past and it does work.  I simply didn’t have time, and I wasn’t prepared for for the issues which arose.

So, I went home, and I think that was the best choice I had under the circumstances.

Incidentally, I returned to the park today but there were no dogs.  Regardless, Lyra took a few minutes to acclimate (which I give her with a “go be a dog” command).  When she had enough of that, she put herself in heel position with her ears up, so I knew she was ready.  All we did today was play with toys – worked on her speed of return to me, her outs and tiny bits of heeling for a reward.  She was pretty darned good for about five minutes and then she put her toy down to wander and sniff.  I collected Lyra’s ball and collected Lyra.  I returned her to the car and brought out another dog –  one who was very willing to work, and when we were done we returned home.  I was totally calm and intrigued….reminded that her attention span is still that of a normal seven month old and not a second more.

What I learned today is that I don’t’ even need a specific doggy distraction to suck her in – sometimes five minutes away from home is the best she can do for me.  Fine.  That’s four and a half more minutes than I was getting a few months ago.


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chet brewer

Denise, that is a very insightful comment about taking away work. Several years ago I had a very strong willed, dominant SAR dog who would get into defiance in a big way. I could break the defiance with either a 2″×4″ (maybe) or as I found later by putting him into a work mode. When he was working he was completely under control and willing to work as part of a team. When he wasnt working he was a handful. taking away his daily opportunity to work was about the worst thing I could do to him


What about option 7? Move farther away from the distraction until Lyra can focus on you again and then slowly work your way back to where you began? That’s what I do with all distractions (if i have the space needed). I may not be able to work up to where I want to be with a 7 month old puppy but I like it better than time outs which also aren’t always possible if you don’t have a crate nearby. it allows me to keep training and training time is all too scarce sometimes.

I also use removal of me from the area if my dog gets distracted. I start at home inside a room with a door. If I ask my dog to sit for example but she doesn’t because she’s looking out the window at something, I quickly step outside the room and stand just on the other side of the door and count to 30. It doesn’t matter what my dog does during that time (unless I’ve done something like leave food lying around that she can reach, I don’t care if she plays with her toys or continues to look out the window). After 30 seconds I come back in without acknowledging the dog at all and stand exactly where I was standing before and ask her to sit once more. I repeat the behavior of leaving until she finally sits for me and then I reward. Naturally, the behavior I ask for has to be something she’s been doing on cue with lots of reinforcement and if the distration is very high like a squirrel or something, it may disappear before this techniques has a chance to work .Hopefully I’m not trying it for the first time when she’s staring at a squirrel right outside the window but have had lots of opportunity to practice with lower level distractions first.

After I do this in all the rooms in my house and in my garage, I do this technique outside in a smallish area with a fence and a gate, like a tennis court. If she ignores me I step outside the gate and ignore her for 30 seconds then come back and ask once more. If she continues to ignore me then I continue to go outside the gate and preferably behind an obstruction for another 30 seconds. I do try to do this at first when the distraction level isn’t way too high for the dog I’m training. Eventually I work up to doing this in my agility field and my yard which are both very large and come complete with various wildlife.

If I do this disappearing act consistently and immediately, my dog learns that behaviors that take away her focus on me have the consequence of removing any possibility of getting any of the rewards I represent. Granted, I am a clicker trainer so I use a lot of rewards, both food and toys, so that she has a long history of being rewarded near me so when I suddenly remove all opportunity for reward it makes quite an impact. It takes a while for this to work if you haven’t used it all along but I find it works pretty quickly with all dogs that have a history of lots of rewards from their handler.

Since my sport of choice is agility, my dog has to be able to ignore lots of distractions even up close to her. The other weekend we had a horse in the arena where we were competing and she has a history of being completely freaked out by them. She was totally solid, though, even when warming up off leash on the warm up jump just feet away from where the horse was tied. I was a proud mommy despite the fact we didn’t qualify :-)


Well today my little one got so distracted durring training it was terrible (un leashed dogs in near distance) sigh.. I had to end it so badly that I just wanted to go home, and tare my hair out. A friend then came up with her dogs, and I sent him to greet them. He went to “play” (he usually play with other dogs for like a minute then stop, with me he would even play “hours” if he could we do have a great relationship). I was so fustrated on myself that I decided to not think about training, and anything and chat with my friend (which I usually never do… ). At a certain point there he went… he started to become operant with three dogs only one or two yards away. I was even able to get lots of tricks out of him. I was suprised… this really makes me think…. hmmmm…..


“Don’t introduce Disneyland unless you have Disneyland on Steroids to offer.”

What if the dog has to go to work in Disneyland someday? I am thinking of field dogs or Schutzhund. Things where the dog gets significantly far away from you and is given the choice between calling his own shots and staying a member of the team. Or am I misunderstanding the metaphor?

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