Using a Crisis to Create Focus – Why training your dog should be your priority


We are in the weirdest time known to the current majority of people. Social distancing is something crated by the COVID-19 Pandemic and hopefully something we’ll never have to repeat.

While we should all be socially isolating from people, and this means staying at home unless you are one of the super star key workers and those key to the supply chain. We still have an obligation to our dogs to walk them, and keep them sane as they don’t understand the situation. We can’t be lazy and we can’t be dismissive. We have an opportunity here as dog owners to help our dogs at a time like no other.

One good walk a day is going to not be enough for some dogs, and some owners. As a country where 1 in 4 houses have a dog, we know that our dogs part of our world and such need to maintain some semblance of consistency in this madness.

We then owe it to them to use this time stuck at home to our advantage. Right now no one is going to run up to your dog demanding to touch it as its ever so cute. No one is going to be walking up the road towards you for spite as they see you struggling with your dog. No one is going to stop you and ask you about your dog. We all all social distanceers!

This is now a time where we have control of our dog training, and how other can behave towards us. Regardless of hitting a stagnant patch of training, not getting opportunity to practice at your pace, we have a chance now to make some real progress in our training without the excuses. We now have a few weeks to remedy out dog training goals.

Dog walks are no longer rushed to work around your busy work day. You have time to prepare yourself and the dog for the new routine, a routine you will be maintaining once your back at work as well. Break the bad habits and build in new ones!

A new routine where the dog doesn’t door dash or focuses on you on walks better because your no rushing, you have time to put the restart or revisit the basics, as well as having the luxury in many cases of less distractions.

You have an opportunity here to break down the training issues your having into bite sized chunks to work on daily. Not to break the habit of a life time, but to right here, right now help your dog cope with the current situation and maintain your sanity.

Lets take reactive behaviour as an example:

Whats the trigger? People

How do they start out on the walk? They are hyped up and alert before we leave the house, and once were out they drag me down the road.

Reaction to the trigger? Lunge, Bark, Redirect

Can you get them to focus? Yes once the person has gone I can focus the dog, but not during.

Does your dog understand a No and Good Boy? Yes but as soon as there is a trigger they will go mad.

Break the Behaviour Down:

  1. The dog has no focus so we build in focus games such as watch me, go find and recall, stay and get it with a toy. Using an arsenal of food, treats and toys! We start this in the home and repeat in short bursts a few times a day. Focusing on the dogs understanding this while stationary.
  2. Focus while on the move. We all forget when were out we generally want the dog to focus on us while we are walking. We only tend to practice training while stationary in the house as were still getting used to being a trainer, and we tend to start risking injury while on the move! So start asking that dog to maintain focus while walking, building in that heeling as you go.
  3. I would also start building in an understanding of the word no here. Or something that means “your doing it wrong”. We are not screaming at them NO to stop, but as soon as they start to mess about or become unfocused then say the no and re engage the behaviour you want. This is not to scare he hell out of them but is instead there to teach them to stop messing about when you want them to focus. I understand dogs are not machines but they still need to understand whats going to get a reward and what isn’t. Once they’ve reengaged reward the hell outta them!

But you need to be asking yourself at this stage what does my dog like? Because if he is checking out all the time, then there is an issue with the reward, or how your interacting with them. Try different food, or skipping meals to build motivation, or changing to a tugger toy. B. F. Skinner one of the first to study how animals learned found that with the right reward rats could learn something in one repetition, but if the reward wasn’t good enough for the rat it would take 20-500 repetitions. 

Level Up to the next stage:

  1. Bring this into the garden or with distractions from other family members becoming the distraction by jumping about or calling the dog, when you are focusing them.
  2. Build duration and distance as well as distraction in separate training sessions.
  3. Break down the usual exit routine in order to create calm and have a plan before you exit. No jumping, barging, pushing, barking or dragging.
  4. Exit the home and change your normal routine. Don’t feed into the choas by going the same places and getting the same reactions where possible. It might be harder during lock down but it can still be done.

Start to Engage the “Enemy”

Once you have a rock solid focus and the dog which understands what you want it to do, then you can start to go hunting for the enemy.

I often advise people to not walk their dogs for a few days to reset the stress in the system. You are probably feeling what they feel daily before the evening news. The feeling of will the numbers rise, will they put a total lockdown in force, when are we going back to normality? All worrying thoughts. No imagine being your dog feeling that. Why not allow them a few days to shut off from the madness to reset the system, and the start a afresh with less stress, less worry and a new outlook on life. It also means you can replace the walks with one to one play and training, building your bond stronger.

Now we are all social distancing we can avoid or keep things that would trigger our dogs at a safer distance. This means when working with them out in the real world we have more time to react  and focus the dog, as well as a dog less likely to react as the thing that is stressing it isn’t as close. Less triggers = more progress in training. Selecting you routes will also take some checking out as there could be some busier places as everyone heads to the same place. You could use a rest day for the dog as a day to leave them settled at home while you check out the local routes you want to use in order to plan ahead, to maximise success.

Even if you have a new puppy in the house hold or a giddy dog these ideas still apply. Break it down. You don’t want the puppy to jump at guests the teach it what you want it to do at the door without distractions, then practice practice. Then use yourself as a distraction opening and shutting the door, or getting other people in the home to come in and out.

Regardless of the outcome of this time, we all have a bit of time to focus on our dogs and should spend the time wisely. Spending time back on the basic level makes a huge difference to our dogs, and our progression in training. Even if its just practising the sit and getting it straight or keeping it while you do a stay, its all progress and all useful.

Kathryn Jones

Clever Fox Canine Training and Behaviour

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