My dog is easily distracted, what can I do?


Tony Cruse advises a reader on what to do to help their English Springer Spaniel concentrate.

Q: Is there a way of building concentration levels in dogs? I have a high-drive, highly intelligent English Springer Spaniel, who is two years old. He picks up things very quickly, and is very eager to please. He also really enjoys his training, but his concentration is not great, although his general obedience is good.
Martin Lee, Shropshire.

Tony says: A Springer can concentrate for hours when flushing birds out of the undergrowth, but may not focus on a human giving loads of instructions.

Suppose you see each training exercise as a series of small tasks (for example retrieve is stay, locate, pick up article, recall, present article, and finish). All exercises can be broken down into small steps, so the criteria of each exercise are essential. Think of criteria as the rungs of a ladder with the full task at the very top. Each rung of the ladder is a small step towards completing the whole exercise. If a dog is losing focus during the tasks in my class, I will consider three factors.

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Criteria set too high
This is where I see a dog switching off and appearing to lose concentration. He may show signs of frustration (sometimes barking). Using my ladder analogy, there are too few rungs on the ladder to make it to the top and a lack of progression. The owner needs to split the training exercise up into smaller and more achievable tasks.

Criteria set too low
The dog is easily completing each stage of the exercise and the owner is repeating the same stage too often. Again, the dog can switch off and appear to lose concentration. Ladder analogy — there are too many rungs on the ladder and the top is in sight, but no progression and movement upwards!

With the criteria in mind, the rewards are a huge factor. Motivation is what drives the dog on to learn each criterion. After every rung of the ladder, a reward must be delivered, so the dog repeats the behaviour next time. And it’s worth considering the reward value. A simple stroke and ‘good boy’ may not be enough reinforcement. A tasty piece of food or a dog’s favourite toy is usually good. In class, if the owner is not providing an adequate reward, the dog switches off, is distracted, and will not concentrate. 

With your spaniel, it may be numbers two and three that you can address. And an exercise that is bound to delight such a breed is scent work, for example find the article in the long grass (ball, glove, keys, cloth). You’ll be working your dog’s nose;  it’s great to watch and dogs rarely tire of it.