Choose a location where the subject animal(s) are behind a fence, in a crate or cage, tethered on a long line, on a leash being handled by another trusted person, or otherwise safely confined. This is for your safety, your dog’s safety and the animal’s safety.

A. One Animal
Start with single calm animal at a distance if at all possible. C/t for any looking or sniffing in that direction while staying calm.

Dog will eventually start looking at the animal, then at you in anticipation of getting the reward. When she is doing that 5 or more times in a row, start clicking the looking back at you. When she is offering that consistently, you can also start naming the behavior “Look” so it comes under verbal cue control. (Tip: “Look” is usually used to get the dog to look at something whereas “Watch” is used to get your dog’s eye contact.)

At the beginning of training sessions cue the look once, then cue simple or fun behaviors your dog knows in quick short bursts of 10 or less. Give your dog a one minute break by moving further away, disengaging eye contact, then move back in and try cuing a few more quick behaviors.

When she is successful with several sessions of that, cue slightly more difficult behaviors.

Next, at that same distance, drop the “Look” cue and just start cueing the simple behaviors. (Your dog shouldn’t need to look at the object/person of interest before doing the cued behavior.) Then try more difficult behaviors.

Next, decrease the distance a little.

Now start cueing simple or fun behaviors your dog knows in quick short bursts of 10 or less. Give your dog a one minute break, then try a few more.

When she is successful with several sessions of that, try slightly more difficult behaviors.

Decrease the distance again. Repeat as above.

Before you get too close to the animal, decide what is a safe distance and if you want your dog to actually interact. If you choose to have her interact, make sure there are other knowledgable people handling the other animal(s) and have a plan. Watch carefully for body language (to indicate stress levels) and have one or both animals confined behind a fence or on a leash so you can move them apart quickly if needed.

B. Multiple Animals
When your dog is able to work with you fairly close to one animal, add a second and work your way from the beginning through the same process. Remember that adding a second animal may chance the dynamics of the group so progress more slowly. Add a few more animals in the same way.
 

 

(For the purposes of this blog post, an object could be a ball, balloon, bicycle, skateboard, shopping cart, car, vacuum cleaner, riding lawn mower, garbage truck etc.)

For safety and the confidence of you dog, always stay with your dog, within leash length. Never leave your dog unattended (especially if leashed) when a human-operated object is in the area (with or without the human presence). There is too much risk of unknowing people making mistakes that can scar your dog.

A. Smelling & Touching the Object
Start object stationary at a distance that is below threshold.
Work closer in small increments until dog is in nose touch reach. Sometimes, you may need to approach the object directly. For example if your dog is focusing on a strange-shaped rock, it might be better to walk directly to it and touch it yourself, then let your dog interact with it. With a noisy or dangerous machine, it would be better to take a slower approach described below.
Other times it is better to slowly move towards it and c/t for any calm behavior and focus on you. When you arrive there, allow your dog to interact with it: sniff it all around, (approach from various angles), nose and paw target it, push it, stand on it -whatever is appropriate for that object, your dog and their physical safety, and social environment the object is in.
When your dog is able to stand or sit calmly nearby the stationary object, try cueing several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, glance at you, sit, etc that you dog can do easily or enjoys doing, Of course click and treat for attempts and good responses.
Next, play with a toy near the object.
Now ask for more complex behaviors-downs, short recalls, heeling, longer duration eye contact, and some service tasks (appropriate to environment).
You can add distance and hopefully your dog will be satisfied she knows what the object is and will ignore it and respond to your cues. If she does not, keep working her near the object or approaching other similar objects in the same way in other locations. Your dog should soon generalize that the object is an object, no matter where you are and not worthy of interest.

B. Hearing the Object
Add some distance, find the sound threshold and work below it and have a helper make it move with its sounds (bicycle bumping over gravel, brake squeaking etc) or turn the object on (if motorized) but keep it stationary.
Move closer to the object as dog becomes comfortable with the sound.
Cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that your dog can do or enjoys doing. Play with a toy near it. Now ask for more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

You can add distance and hopefully your dog will be satisfied she knows what the object is and will ignore it and respond to your cues. If she does not, keep working her near the object or approaching other similar sounding objects in the same way in other locations. Your dog should soon generalize that the object is an object, no matter where you are and not worthy of interest.

C. Watching the Object Move
Again start at a distance and ask someone else to move/drive the object.

Start at a very slow speed. Increase speed as dog can handle it. When dog can handle the object passing by and is deferring to you, cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that you dog can do or enjoys doing.

Next, play with a toy near it.

Now cue more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

Move closer to the object. You move to it first, as it may trigger interest or fear on your dog’s part. You want your dog to feel she has choice in approaching the noisy object or moving away. This will give her a sense of control and confidence. If at any time, she wants to move away, go with her to just below her threshold distance. When she is comfortable with that and able to focus on you and successfully carry out simple cues, direct the object to move parallel to her, then on angle, then more towards you and your dog.

Progress slowly and stay under the dog’s threshold if at all possible to build success. At each step, start with simple cues, progress to playing, then to more complex behaviors.

D. Unpredictability
Ask the other person to be less predicable in driving by, towards dog, fast, slow etc.
Cue several simple cues-nose touch, paw touch, sit, etc that you dog can do or enjoys doing.

Play with a toy.

Next ask for more complex behaviors and some service tasks.

Move towards or away from object as needed for your dog’s success. Reward for staying focused and completing tasks!

E. Generalizing to other Locations

Set up situations where you and your dog encounter the object in other environments. Be ready for a training session as needed. Remember to decrease your criteria whenever you change a criteria (such as speed, loudness of sound, environment the object is seen in etc).

Can you see the pattern you are building here?
 
Be Flexible
Remember that despite your best planning, no plan will occur exactly as it is laid out on paper. You, your dog and the distraction or environment will demand that changes be made on the fly. Below are training plans (think of them as frameworks if it helps you be flexible) to get you started. Please adapt or modify them for your own dog’s needs. They can be used for basic beginning training or training problem areas or anything in between. Each stage may take one training session or many, depending on you, your dog, his previous training and experience with similar situations, the object, animal or people involved and the environment where training occurs. Don’t forget, you will be clicking (or marking) and rewarding for calm behavior or focus on you at each little step.

Your Dog's Perspective
When training a dog for distractions you need to think from your dog’s perspective. Dogs learn about the world using predominantly their senses of smell, hearing and sight. So these senses are what will capture their attention. Which sense is predominant is usually determined by the breed. So for example, sight hounds are usually triggered by the sight of things moving quickly, scent hounds are triggered by interesting smells, while more reactive dogs (like terriers), tend to be more sensitive to sounds. You may need to spend more time on your dog’s preferred sense than the others but you want to make sure you work on all three separately, then together. Be creative-ask others for ideas if you run into a real challenge for your dog.

Work on Only One Aspect of a Distraction at a Time
Break down each distraction into its simplest parts and work each one separately. Once success has been achieved with each one, then you can start combining components. This is what is known as raising the criteria or splitting the behavior.

Set the Scene
Also remember that if you are calm, your dog will be too. Take a helper to help setting up the training equipment or the environment, provide moral support for you or to interact/distract/direct members of the public as required. Give them clear guidance what EXACTLY you want them to do. (Stand up straight, avoid eye contact with dog, explain to public what you are doing when they reach a specific spot etc). Thanking them afterwards or taking them out for a coffee etc goes a long way to having them help you again-think positive reinforcement for humans!

Remember to Reward
At each step of the training, start by click and rewarding desired behaviors. And don’t forget to jackpot reward (a handful of 8-10 treats delivered one at a time) your dog when she does something that is new or a breakthrough for her. This keeps her interest and also motivates her to focus on you, not the distraction.

How Fast will My Dog Progress?
How quickly your dog progresses through each step depends on her previous socialization to the objects/people/animals/environment (that is why it is so important to socialize them during the critical period of 7 to 16 weeks), current level of training/teamwork, motivation for reward, general resilience to new things and places, and overall confidence level among other things.

What is a Threshold?
This is the level at which your dog can no longer stay calm or focused on you with that object, person, animal or environment. She will show a few signs of stress (positive or negative) such as taking treats harder than usual (but can eat), ears forward and listening to object, eyes open wide and looking at the object -but can still be redirected by a cue or sound that you make. She should also be able to complete simple task such as sit, stand, down and nose targeting your hand. You want to start with your dog under threshold and keep her there as she learns to deal with distractions. Going above the threshold causes the training process to take longer.
 
Tiny puppies, rescue dogs and even the most focused and well-trained dogs have things that distract their attention from their job of focusing on you. So how do you add distractions to your dog’s training program while helping her to be successful?

The most effective trainers use a slow carefully thought out 4 step process.
1.Desensitize your dog to the triggers,
2. Counter condition her to them (changing how she feels about it) and
3. Train her to interact appropriately with them while giving you eye contact
4. Respond to your cues to do behaviors and tasks while in the presence of the distraction(s) then defer back to you.

All four are techniques that work best in combination for service dogs.

With some dogs, you can progress very quickly through a planned distraction. With others, you may need to spend much time at each step of a slight increase of distraction. It all depends on how much value you dog put on that particular distraction, or the combination of distractions.

You must remember that a distraction is not only something that captures your dog’s attention and draws her focus away from you, the distraction may also cause stress (anxiety, fear, excitement) in your dog. You must work through the emotional response first, (using desensitization and/or counter conditioning) before your dog can offer her attention to you.

In the first stages of training anything new, give your dog a chance to improve. If he starts at about a 30% success rate, he should quickly progress to 80% success. If his success rate is lower than that to start, or he doesn’t progress rapidly, you’ll have to break each step into smaller steps he can achieve. The same as with task training, it is the trainer’s job to help the dog succeed.

The rule of 4 comes in handy here. If your dog is not successful, break that step into 2 smaller pieces and then each of those into 2 smaller pieces. Once your dog has achieved 80%, it’s time to increase the criteria. Remember that several short sessions are better than one long one. Give him play breaks, crate him, or take him out of the stressful environment if you plan to be there for a longer period- for example if you must drive a distance and want to make your time at the location worthwhile. Don’t forget, it takes a lot for you to focus as well, so you need a break from your dog too!

When your dog can calmly focus on you and do some simple behaviors (nose touch, sit, a cued glance, etc) for you with the distractions nearby, it is time to move on to asking for a progression of more complex service-oriented tasks. Work towards his returning his attention to you after each task. The click or mark and reward will help with that, but by intermittently rewarding for eye contact, you can have a dog that is attending to you.

General Rules of Distraction Training:
A. Set your dog up for success! The key idea here is that the increments of change must be small enough that your dog can take them in stride. This is called working under threshold. If your dog starts to become distracted and I unable to complete the behavior or task you cued, you have raised the criteria too fast for her needs. That is an example of working above threshold.

B. Remember to use high value rewards when adding a high value distraction or one that she has never trained with before successfully.

C. Use distance as your friend, then decrease it in small increments as your dog demonstrates he can handle being closer to the object/animal/person.

D. Start with low value distractors and increase in slightly higher value steps. You will need to brainstorm a list of things that capture your dog’s attention (smells, sounds, things he sees) and prioritize them. If you can separate out the pieces of each distraction: for example a horse: sounds of neighing, smell, sight since for some dogs one of these will be more of a trigger than others and you will need to work separately on it.

E. Start with stationary things, then add a slight motion and move to greater motion.

F. Start with quiet things, then increase sound in small increments.

G. Start with non-smelly objects and increase the intensity of the smell. For example, instead of using a live bird, pet it first and c/t for your dog smelling your hands and staying calm. Next wrap the bird in a towel for a few minutes and lay the towel down where your dog can smell it. Present the empty cage for your dog to smell. Then add the bird.

H. Start with one distraction, then add another, in increments of one or two as you dog shows you she can be successful with it.

For Locations with Multiple Distractions

i). Train a few of the distractions individually first, then together in various combinations, if possible.
ii). Start in a familiar environment if at all possible, then move to less familiar location to continue training.
iii) Train at the location when no-one is there to build familiarity with the physical environment.
iv). Start at the periphery of a location, (walking on the edge of the action, for example, before moving slightly towards the center.)
v). Start with low density (for example, choose events with fewer people more spread out, then progress to slightly more dense situations (move to an area in the event where people are closer together or a more popular event).

Over-Training
Train for the worst-case scenario and you will also be prepared for anything! This is called over-training. Since working in public can be so unpredictable, it is important that we train way above any expected criterion for distraction level. We do not want to floor or traumatize our dog, but by incrementally increasing our distraction criterion, we can bring our dogs into the realm of bombproof (assuming they have a resilient temperament to start with.) 

Proofing For Distractions
In order to keep your dog current, it is a good idea to refresh training uncommon distractions periodically. How often is up to the time you have and how reactive/focused on you your dog is or you can refresh training for specific distractions before you intend to revisit a location.
 
Hopefully, two of your criteria for choosing your assistance dog were that he would be physically and mentally capable of doing any task that you would require of him. As the trainer as well as owner/handler of a service dog, you will also need to consider WHEN he will be physically and mentally ready for some of the tasks and what impact they may have on him.

Physical Needs of Service Dogs
A dog that is asked to train for and carry out tasks that he is not yet physically mature enough to do may negatively impact his overall health. Any behavior that is repetitive especially on a daily basis, that is done on a hard surface, involves jumping, or puts stress on joints (such as rearing up) should be closely evaluated for when they should be trained. Hips, elbows, knees and spine are the most affected.

A dog’s bones are not fully formed until they are 12 to 18 months old. Smaller dogs develop sooner than larger dogs. By that age, the bone plates have closed and if they have formed properly, your dog is more likely to be sound. If there is significant or ongoing stress as the plates are forming, the bones may be malformed and the damage can become permanent.

Overall physical stamina is another consideration. A 6 month old puppy has less stamina than a 2 year old dog and a senior dog also likely has less than the 2 year old. You need to choose the number and type of tasks to train accordingly.

Since bracing work is especially structurally stressful, make sure dog is structurally sound and suitable build for this work and wait until his bone plates have closed before starting the training. Have a vet assess your dog. Pay particular attention to the technique you use to teach a brace as you want to make sure you are distributing your weight over the shoulder area evenly, not putting any stress on the spine and placing your weight so the stress goes straight down through the dog’s legs toward the ground. Think of a cane being held upright versus being held on angle. The one on the angle put the stress on the cane and it may snap. The cane held upright puts the stress on the bottom tip on the ground where it should be.

Pulling a wheelchair is another physically stressful task as is opening a heavy public door. Start with a harness that is designed for the task, and has been properly fitted. Make sure your dog is physically mature and that you slowly condition him to do the amount of pulling you need on a daily basis. Think of your dog as an athlete: every aspect of their physical training (weight, distance, speed, duration, etc) should be increased in small increments and trained one aspect at a time. Then you can bring the aspects together by adding two together, then three etc.

Mental & Emotional Needs of Service Dogs
Mental and emotional levels and requirements also need to be considered when considering training new tasks. Does your dog have the self control, body awareness and mental maturity to complete both the training and implementation of each specific task?

Some dogs won’t be ready for certain tasks until they are older. For example, your dog might be too mouthy (unaware of the impact his teeth have on you) to carefully pull off a sock without injury to you or too exuberant to paw a light switch without scratching the wall. He may not yet be physically aware of his body to safely navigate close to you in a wheelchair. You can choose to start training these but not expect proficiency until he is older, or you may choose to wait to train them.

Mental stamina increases from puppyhood to maturity and beyond. Start with simple tasks, and train more complicated ones. Start with a few and build to many, alternate training tasks so you don’t overload him in training.

Consider how long your dog can focus on a task or tasks without getting fatigued - a very common cause of refusal. Stop well before you get to that point. Better to leave him eager for more than getting tired of what you are training.

Your dog needs to feel connected to you. Regular training and play builds that bond (remembering than training should always be fun!) Of course, your dog needs daily love and attention from you (and maybe others).

Overall Maintenance of Health
Maintaining your dog in good working condition is critical to his performance. Ensure he is getting the exercise levels he needs for a dog his body structure, breed and age and getting quality food.

Daily exercise builds muscle tone, helps with body awareness, expends extra energy and stress and helps keep him at an ideal weight. It also helps to keep a more active dog calm.

Factor in how much exercise he gets doing tasks for you, then make up the balance of his needs with other forms of exercise. You may need to be creative with how you exercise him if you handle him alone and have physical or balance disabilities. Teaching him to chase a piece of fur dran along th ground on a string, or the tip of a long target stick, retrieve a ball, pacing alongside your wheelchair, sending him to run around objects at a distance or targeting a spot on the fence etc may be options. Directed exercise may also help him to bond with you since you are the provider of this resource.

An overweight or obese dog is less likely to want to work for the handler, has lower energy levels, may be sluggish in performing them and the extra weight puts him at risk for heart and joint-related health problems. This makes it difficult to maintain his performance and training.

Tip:
To figure out if your dog is overweight, gently touch the tips of your fingers to his ribs. You should be able to easily feel the rib bones under his skin. If there is a layer of fat, he needs to lose some weight. A quick visual check (not as effective) is to look from above to see an hourglass shape with his chest and hips being wider than his stomach area. If in doubt, ask your veterinarian.

Your dog needs quality food suited to his age and energy output.

For large-boned dogs, it is important to pay attention to how much calcium is required for proper growth during puppyhood. Consult your vet, but a heads up that too much calcium can be bad for large breeds or big-boned dogs as it promotes the bones to grow too quickly and become less dense, and therefore less able to withstand stress. If your breed is prone to hip or elbow dysplasia, an Orthopedic Foundation for Animals (OFA) screening test at 2 years of age done by a veterinarian may be needed.

Since you are most likely using treats to train, you can fend off obesity by removing the equivalent of food from his daily ration that you feed him in treats. For a handful of treats, remove what you think the caloric equivalent is for his food. You may also be able to use his daily food as the reward for training, providing it motivates him enough to work. In more distracting environments, or to motivate him to do new tasks, you may need to use higher value, but healthy treats, such as small cubes of liver, chicken, cheese etc.

An easy way to reduce caloric intake is to remove one fifth of his regular meal and substitute it with cooked pumpkin or other squashes, boiled frozen green beans or other vegetable that he will willingly eat. Once he gets to his ideal weight, you may need to experiment with how much food he needs to keep him at a stable weight.

On a daily basis, every dog needs a balance of rest and recreation time suited to his specific needs. After performing longer than usual or in stressful situations, it is important to give your dog sufficient rest and recovery time afterwards. Giving him a day off, or periods of time where he can remove himself from the stress is needed to keep him happy and healthy.

When in the midst of performing, a short break from the situation, a change of task or creating an opportunity to physically release stress by chasing a ball or playing tug may help him deal with the stress in a appropriate way. Then he can get back to work.

A Study of the Impact on Service Dogs for Autistic Children might be of interest.
Factors Affecting Behavior and Welfare of Service Dogs for Children With
Autism Spectrum Disorder