Improving How Your Dog Responds to Cues

August 2019

Audience: Foster Caregivers, Public, Shelter/Rescue Staff & Volunteers

When a dog first learns a cue such as "stay", they might have trouble generalizing this skill to different situations. For example, your dog doesn't understand that because you've asked them to "sit" when you're 1 foot away from them, they should also "sit" when you're 10 feet away from them or when there's a dog nearby. Incorporate the 3 D's (distractions, distance and duration) into training each cue into a well trained behavior. Here are ways you can help your dog learn how to respond to cues the way you want them to!

The 3 D's

Distractions
Once your dog has learned a cue indoors without distractions, add more distractions slowly. Check out the examples below for ideas:

  • No distractions indoors: all people and other pets are removed or are inactive. Or use a quiet smaller room.
  • Minor distractions indoors: people or pets nearby but not interacting with your dog.
  • Big distractions indoors: someone else is moving about or doing something in the home that interests your dog. Or someone is playing outside and your dog is watching them from inside the home.
  • No distractions outdoors: practicing in a quiet yard or on a walk but without people/dog distractions.
  • Minor distractions outdoors: traffic, occasional people, etc.
  • Big distractions outdoors: busy streets, crowds of people, other dogs (at a safe distance if your dog is reactive toward dogs), bikes, skateboards, etc.

Distance
Dogs usually initially learn cues when they're right next to you. Teaching them to respond when they're further away from you can be very useful.

  • Start slow and gradually increase distance. For example ask a dog to "Come" to you from only 5 feet away, then praise and reward. Repeat 10 times. If your dog succeeds, ask for "Come" from 10 feet away. Repeat 10 times, and then try it from 12 feet away, etc.
  • If your dog fails when you move further away, go back to the distance they were succeeding with and try the further distance again later.

Duration
Increase the time span for cues like "stay" to make the cue more useful.

  • Build longer time slowly. For example, start with a dog in "stay" close to you for 3 seconds, and then praise and reward. Repeat 10 times, and then do "stay" for 5 seconds. Repeat 10 times, and then do a stay for 15 seconds, etc.
  • If your dog fails when you add more time, go back to the time they succeeded on for 5 more repetitions and then add a little time to the next stay.

Tips and Hints

  • Add distractions, distance and duration slowly. For example, to add busier areas for walks, train in your backyard first, then out on a quiet street, then in a quiet park, then a busier street, then a busy park. Don't add distractions, distance, and duration all at the same time.
  • Use your dog's favorite treats or toys in distracting environments. Working for a few pieces of kibble with no distractions might be enough for your dog when they're inside the house, but outside with distractions they may need a yummy moist treat that they really love. Giving them lots of those treats in shorter training sessions to keep their attention also helps. For example, when "loose leash walking" past a distraction, you might use yummy liver treats and praise and reward every 3-5 steps.
  • If your dog isn't successful in performing a cued behavior, take a 'step back' in the training to where they can succeed: fewer distractions, less distance, less duration, or better rewards.
  • Each dog is an individual and will have cues that take longer or shorter for them to learn and generalize. For example, fearful dogs often take longer to be comfortable training around busy streets and excited dogs may take longer to learn control around other dogs. Love and respect your dog for who they are and enjoy them!

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