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Gaining relevance through distraction training


At this point in the series, you've received a brief explanation of proofing and its components, along with a more in-depth look at training for distance responses to behavioral cues.  

Moving on to the second of the "3 D's," it's time to start proofing for distractions

Distractions are one of the aspects of fluency students tend to struggle with the most.  After all, it's difficult to compete with the environment when it seems as though there is a squirrel around every corner, an invisible distraction (to you) in the form of a scintillating scent trail, kids on bikes or rollerblades, construction equipment/activity, you name it!

So how do we even begin to gain relevance in our dog's world...a world of heightened sensual experience we could never even imagine?

Systematically, of course.  We have to break these criteria down into manageable and achievable steps, just like we did with distance.  How do we confront this daunting task?

I like to use a distraction and reinforcement hierarchy.  Borrowing from Tamar Gellar, I really like the idea of bronze, silver, gold, and platinum level reinforcers and have taken it a step further by extending these divisions to distractions.  As I see it, reinforcers and distractions must go hand in hand for effective training, and using hierarchies makes that happen.

I'm sure you're wondering what the heck I'm talking about, so let's delve into this matter further, shall we?

The success of a positive reinforcement training program directly correlates with the handler or trainer's ability to recognize what is reinforcing to the dog.  Distraction and reinforcement hierarchies will vary widely between dogs, as we must remember that the individual learner determines what is reinforcing (and distracting) to him.

My favorite food may be different from yours.  To each his own, right?

In any case, the success of distraction training relies on the careful selection of criteria and reinforcers.  Differential reinforcement is an important concept to understand and is at the crux of distraction training success.

Differential reinforcement means that exceptional efforts should be reinforced exceptionally.  It means that in the face of higher distractions, you will need to draw on higher value reinforcers.  Many of you may be familiar with the concept of "jackpotting" which is a prime example of differential reinforcement.  

An example which may be relevant to you is overtime or holiday pay.  If I am your boss and expect you to work regular work hours, you make regular pay.  If I expect you to work overtime, weekends, or holidays, you'll probably want more money (more reinforcement).  If I paid you by commission, you would make more money for better efforts/sales.  This is a human application of the theory of differential reinforcement.

In order to differentially reinforce behaviors, it helps to know how valuable each of your reinforcers are.  This is where a reinforcement hierarchy comes in handy.

There is some debate as to the usefulness of secondary reinforcers as opposed to primary reinforcers.  What is the difference, you might ask?

Primary reinforcers are necessary for the advancement/survival of the individual/species.  For dogs, primary reinforcers include:  food, water, air, sex, and participation in the prey sequence.  Without any of these factors, the species would not be able to continue filling its ecological niche.  

A secondary reinforcer is a reinforcer that has been conditioned (hence the term "conditioned" reinforcer) - there is nothing in the dog's biological composition that compels the need for this reinforcer, but something in the dog's experience/environment has created a positive emotional response to the stimuli in question.  

In dog training, a good example of a conditioned reinforcer is the clicker.  It is reinforcing to the dog because we have paired it systematically with access to a primary reinforcer (food).  

In the human world, money is the most widely recognized secondary reinforcer.  Pieces of green paper with pictures of presidents and numbers are not intrinsically reinforcing to people.  Money is reinforcing because throughout our experience with money, it has been systematically paired with access to primary reinforcers (shelter, food, etc.).  

A bit off topic, but this is also an illustration of why dogs work for the click as opposed to working for the food, much like we humans work for a paycheck as opposed to a few gallons of gas and a bag of groceries at our desk each Thursday morning.

Since the individual dog determines what is reinforcing to him, and most people believe they are supposed to reinforce with a primary reinforcer, it is not uncommon to hear students saying that their dog finds fetch or tug more reinforcing than a hot dog, and, "is that ok?"

I dispute the belief that fetch and tug are secondary reinforcers.  I believe that each represents a part of the prey sequence which is:  orient, eye, stalk, chase (fetch), grab/bite (tug), kill/bite (tug - the bite and shake!), dissect.  Therefore, I do believe it is quite common to see these reinforcers rather high on the hierarchy for many dogs.

I also dispute the notion that secondary reinforcers do not have their place in a reinforcement hierarchy.  My agility instructor/colleague's Jack Russell loves nothing more than the opportunity to jump excitedly into his handler's arms.  The cue for a behavior taught with positive reinforcement can also function as a reinforcer.    

To create a reinforcement hierarchy, think of as many things as possible which are reinforcing to your dog and break them into categories (Challenge yourself!  How many reinforcers can you think of?).  

A typical reinforcement hierarchy may appear as follows (I'll be keeping this relatively brief for the sake of the article, but you get the picture):


opportunity to go through doorway
opportunity to get into/out of car
having leash put on
physical contact (pats)


natural balance/red barn food roll
Wellness Pure Rewards
opportunity to smell interesting scents on ground
cue for an established behavior
hot dogs


peanut butter
canned dog food
meat balls
opportunity to swim


opportunity to greet other dogs
opportunity to greet approaching human
opportunity to chase squirrels
mashed potatoes and gravy
raw liver/hamburger
deer poop
flirt pole

I encourage you to create a much more comprehensive hierarchy, aiming for thirty, forty, fifty or more reinforcers.  

Now that we have our reinforcement hierarchy, it's time to begin working on our distraction hierarchy.  You're going to see a lot of parallels between the two hierarchies, I'm guessing!

We'll use the same method to create the distraction hierarchy that we used to create our reinforcement hierarchy:  bronze, silver, gold, platinum.  You will most likely notice that many of your distractions for each level correlate with your reinforcers for each level.  For instance, your distraction hierarchy may look as follows (again, a simplified version):

leaves blowing in the wind
kibble on the ground
open doorway
open car door
handler movement

interesting scents on the ground
cheerios on the ground
other dog fifty feet away
tennis ball

swimming area
kids on bikes/skateboards
car horns beeping
kitty litter box

other dogs
other people
tug toy
deer poop
remote control car

Completing these hierarchies is valuable for a number of reasons.  First, it allows you to really think critically about your dog and how he views the world...what is important to him?  Second, it provides you with a framework for distraction proofing.

If you are working on a silver distraction level, you'd better not be pulling out your bronze treats.  At the silver distraction level, "to par" efforts should receive silver reinforcers, above criteria responses should receive gold level reinforcers, and exceptional, I-can't-believe-you-did-so-well efforts deserve platinum reinforcements.  

Using bronze level reinforcers in the face of a platinum level distraction will certainly leave both you and your dog feeling frustrated.

Looking at the provided examples, can you see the parallels?  

For example, note that opportunity to chase squirrels is a platinum level reinforcer and the sight of squirrels is a platinum level distraction.  When you have worked up to platinum distractions, if you cue a behavior when your dog spots a squirrel and the dog responds, what better reinforcement than providing an opportunity to chase (once the squirrel is safe, of course) the object of your dog's interest?  

Sometimes this works, sometimes not.  Like my trainer/partner/KPA faculty member says, "if I could stomach carrying deer poop around for reinforcers, I could train my dog to do anything!"  Since deer poop is not a practical platinum level reinforcer, feel free to substitute one of the others on the list.

Using the squirrel chase to reinforce focus around the squirrel is an application of the Premack principle, which states that a creature is likely to perform a less favored behavior for the opportunity to engage in a more favored behavior (i.e., if you eat your spinach, you can have this ice cream!).  

Start out at the bronze level distractions of your hierarchy.  If handler movement is on that list for your dog, begin by cueing the behavior while you are moving slightly (perhaps lifting your left leg to knee level and putting it back down).  Then work up to larger movements, jumping jacks, running in place, running back and forth, waving your arms around, etc.  

If your dog is unable to respond to cues at a particular level when you are training, evaluate the situation critically...what distractions are you up against?  Is your reinforcer valuable enough, or do you need to go up the hierarchy or lower your criteria for distraction?  Can you create distance between your dog and the distraction (lowering the distance criteria while raising the distraction criteria)?

I strongly encourage keeping notes of training sessions.  A training journal will allow you to spot trends, peaks and valleys in your training journey and help you improve your skills as a trainer.  

The bulk of proofing behaviors is generally in the distraction training, which is why this entry is so long.  It's tricky because there are an infinite number of distractions and reinforcers which could comprise your hierarchies, and in all likelihood, every dog you ever train will have a totally different list for each.  

Prey distractions are one that many people struggle with because they are generally outside of the handler's control - you can generally neither manipulate their appearance or at what distance they appear.  That said, remote control cars, other dogs, or other fast moving objects can often stimulate the same chase response that prey animals do, and can function as good distractions which you can manipulate for distance and movement.  

I've just discovered there is a deer farm in our area, and you can bet I will be contacting the owners to see if I can take advantage of this as a great opportunity to proof behaviors around predatory distractions!

Although this all sounds overwhelming, really concentrating on creating thorough hierarchies for reinforcers and distractions makes distraction proofing a cinch.  These two lists will basically guide you through all you need to know to get reliable behaviors in the face of any distraction you may encounter.

Happy proofing, until next time!