The article below is from Diamonds in the Ruff (, a website with terrific articles and tip sheets on all sorts of behavior issues.

Overcoming Distractions

Distractions come in many forms. They are most difficult to overcome when they occur in clusters. Rarely is your dog faced with one distraction at a time.

Let's see how many possible distractions we can list for one specific situation: 
Taking your dog to practice in a grocery store parking lot:

People- men, women, young, old, babies, girls, boys, teenagers, different ethnicities, long hair, bald, facial hair, tall, short, fat, thin, transients, moms, dads, grandmas, business men. Numbers of people: - one or two vs a crowd.

Clothing - hats, coats, helmets, noisy rustling or flapping clothes, business suits, long skirts, uniforms, big boots, clicking heels, roller blades, flip flops, back packs.

Carried items - bags, purses, boxes, brief cases, suit cases, umbrellas, canes, walking sticks, crutches, walkers. Holding children, in arms on shoulders (looks like two headed person.)

Actions of People - relaxed normal stroll vs urgent pace, walking very slowly, hurrying, jogging, sprinting, running, hopping, skipping, jumping, stomping, stumbling, tripping, falling, scuffing, shuffling, sneaking, hovering, odd gaits: stiff, limping, palsied shaking, mentally or physically disabled or those impaired by alcohol or drugs.

Attitude - friendly, fearful, excited, exhuberant, suspicious, resentful, silly, grumpy, angry (toward the dog or when interacting with you or other shoppers.)

Attention - intensity of look, scrutinizing, staring, coaxing, holding eye contact, looming over, reaching for the dog.

Touch - friendly petting, rough petting, tentative petting, groping, patting, pulling, pushing, poking, pulling, sneaking up behind.

Sudden movement - running away, rushing toward, reaching over, gesturing with hands, unexpected person popping out from behind a car, automatic door opening, something dropped or tipping over.

Traffic - cars, busses, vans, trucks, big delivery trucks, motorcycles, shopping carts, wheelchairs, motorized scooters, walkers, strollers, skate boards, bicycles, road construction vehicles, snow plows, snow blowers, leave blowers.

Weather - wind blowing, ice, snow, rain, hot sun, spring smells, leaves blowing.

Terrain / footing - asphalt, concrete, lawn, floor grates, rubber matts, curbing, tile.

Animals - sea gulls, crows, pigeons, sparrows, dogs in cars, stray cats, squirrels.

Sounds- car engines, rolling rattling sound of cart wheels, crashing of shopping carts, honking, sirens, car alarms, cell phones ringing, air brakes hissing, music playing, loud speakers crackling, thumping bass of rap music in car stereo, dogs barking, birds, people talking, singing, kids giggling, laughing, babies cryingtoddler tantrums, teenage banter, shoes on pavement, flapping flags or signs, sprinklers hissing, splashing. Overall noise level. Sudden big sounds vs constant barrage of big sounds.

Smells - people (their mood, anxiety, adrenalin has a smell to your dog), perfumes, soaps, cigarette smoke, nicotine, alcohol, what they had for lunch, animals, plants, groceries, food cooking, coffee, scent trails where other pets/people have been, bird droppings, dropped food, etc, diaper smells, exhaust, garbage, smell of the interior of the store when doors open.

Proximity - how close you are. Can your dog observe at a distance where he feels safe? Think of proximity like distance from a campfire. The closer to the distraction, the hotter (harder) it gets. You have to move to a comfortable "temperature" when things start to heat up.

Path and speed of travel - are the above things coming directly toward your dog, or passing left to right?

Intent - are the above social behaviors directed AT your dog, or are they happening on the fringes?

CLUSTERS of the above: Tall man in long flapping coat running wearing big boots. Your dog may be able to handle tall men but be totally freaked out if the same man (even after getting acquainted and feeling perfectly safe) suddenly ran. 

If your dog is accustomed to a wide variety of people, places, things and situations, he will be better able to listen, think and follow your directions.

If you adequately practice his well learned skills in the presence of novel people, places and things in calm environments, he will learn HOW to perform accurately in the face of low level distractions. Then you can move to slightly more distracting situations, increasing the difficulty a little at a time.

With time and practice, your dog will eventually be able to handle anything life throws at him that his temperament can handle. Bold confident personalities will handle the unexpected far better than softer tempered dogs.

If your dog is placed in a novel situation that is too much for his skill level, his polished behaviors will be less polished and his weaker behaviors will become non-existent.

Other factors that affect your dog's ability to work:


FEAR. Previous trauma or lack of experience. To the unsocialized dog or pup who finds the world a little scary, scanning the horizon for danger takes precedence over silly commands like "sit." He simply cannot remain still on a stay, focused on his owner's whims when he is sure danger lurks nearby. Personal safety takes priority!

ANXIETY.The stressed dog is going to put self-care first. Separated from a housemate, away from the security of familiar surroundings, previous associations that cars make him vomit or takes him to the veterinary clinic or groomers where he is left behind with strangers ... sit?

EXCITEMENT.The overly social dog in a park full of children or other dogs is like a kid at Disneyland. He can't focus on his homework any more than a kid could do algebra on a roller coaster.

SOCIAL PROTOCOL. If what you ask your dog to do conflicts with proper dog etiquette, your dog will naturally attend to what his body language and direction of travel says to another animal or person. If you ask your dog to walk directly toward another dog who feels threatened, your dog will appropriately want to take the pressure off the other dog by making a curved approach around the other dog to give it space, sniff the ground, look away . He may not be able to follow your command to down in the presence of a tricky social situation.


INTACT DOGS can't think if procreation is on the front burner.

DISCOMFORT: chronic pain, stiff muscles, allergic itching, too hot, too cold, wet, needs to relieve itself..

HUNGRY, FULL, TIRED, EXERCISED or UNDEREXERCISED- all will have an effect on your dog's mood and ability to concentrate.

INSTINCT & DRIVE- What was your dog bred to do? A Border Collie next to a busy street with cars flying by or a pointer in the presence of a flock of birds will be doubly distracted by the environment. Smells are everywhere - you can't avoid them when walking your Bloodhound.

This handout may be reprinted in its entirety for distribution free of charge and with full credit given:
© CAROL A. BYRNES "DIAMONDS IN THE RUFF" Training for Dogs & Their People -
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