Not long ago I wrote a post about tolerating distractions; how to introduce distractions in small doses to help your dog function and succeed - a little bit at a time.  Let's say you went home and thought about this.  You believed that you had done good distraction training, and you're feeling pressure (from inside or from others) to progress further in your distraction training.

Let's go there for a bit.

This blog is going to make some people uncomfortable.  That's because we'll be talking about positive punishment; adding an aversive (pressure) to decrease behavior (watching a distraction).  Not only talking about it, I'm going to show you how to do it.  And while this sort of training is a very small part of my overall training (less than 1%), it does come up with some dogs under some circumstances.

Before you add pressure, ask yourself the following questions:

1) Does your dog have some solid behaviors (like heeling/front position) that require attention to the handler to be performed successfully?

2) Does your dog have a motivator that is very important, like tasty treats or popular toys?

3) Is your dog well conditioned to love work; to understand that working with you is a fabulous opportunity?

4)  Do you have a distraction that you can control completely?

5) Do you strongly believe that your dog's interest in the distraction is curiosity with no element of fear?

6) Is your dog relatively grown up and mature?

Here we go.

In the crate in the middle of my training area are three chickens.  Lyra is taken into the training area on leash and she finds them pretty darned quickly.  I allow her take a good look.  The leash is to prevent her from getting to the crate.  I want her to be attracted to them as a  curiosity; if she has no idea what it is that she sees and smells, then I risk creating fear.  So....let the dog see the distraction and make sure the dog's interest in getting closer is fascination/curiousity rather than concern.  Lyra has been looking at chickens through a fence for a year; she is not afraid of them.

Do not use anything as an initial distraction that might show up in real life.  That way, if you inadvertently create fear you won't have huge ramifications.

If your dog has a sit or down stay, that would be a good way to allow the dog to see the distraction from a distance.  Lyra's stay is not strong enough for that, so I let her look on a tight leash.

After the dog knows what is out there and is somewhat acclimated, it's time to ask for work.

The technique I'm going to use is pressure release.  If Lyra tries to look at the distraction then I will either step behind her (weak pressure); block her view (more pressure) or walk into her driving her backwards and away (greatest pressure).  Stepping behind her is pressure, because she knows that is how I start heeling and she is disregarding my clear cue - the pressure of expectation.  Blocking her view is pressure because it's a clear indication from me that I don't want her looking that way.  And walking into her is pressure because I am preventing what she wants and keeping up the pressure until she "gives" to me.

Video: This video shows good training and bad training.  Let's look at it.

2 to 7 sec:  Lyra ignores me; I block her and circle away.

12 sec:  circling away is successful - I reward her.

28 sec:  Ask for the toy release facing away from the distraction to increase odds of success

24 sec:  mild pressure gets her back

43 sec;  verbal/ backing up gets her back

60 sec: backing up is not effective; blocking.  I'm losing her attitude here.

1:15:  backing up works; note I go to some length not to let the leash tighten.

1:21 backing up not effective; blocking is

1:25 sec;  Major struggle here;  she's sniffing - possibly avoidance but more likely gathering information about the chickens

1:32 sec:  blocking does not work; walking into her does. Attitude stays pretty good.  I play a long time to reduce stress

1:50 sec: Note that again the release is facing away from the chickens; this is important!

1:56 sec:  light blocking brings her back.

For the next minute note the constant on and off of pressure, direction of travel and verbal reinforcement.  However, I'm working pretty hard.  If I had stopped at the 3:15 mark (where she was successful and heavily reinforced), that would have been ideal.  After that point, she was struggling more and more - her brain was full.

3:55sec - you can see from her expression that she has had enough.  She is no longer looking at the chickens with attraction and curiousity; she looks exhausted!

4:00 sec - I change  to a new location on the field.Sometimes that buys you another couple of minutes of good work, because it changes the perspective for the dog.  As you can see, this was not the case here.

4:30 sec - This is as much pressure as I am comfortable applying - it does not work.  You can see Im working hard, but at that point she wasn't really capable of doing better.

5:15sec -Lyra is no longer accepting her toy as a reward.

The rest of the tape is an excellent illustration of poor training.  All I have left is pressure...she's not interested in her toy and she's no longer interested in work.  Lesson here....two or three minutes is enough!

Ideally, I would have several sessions of very easy work for a week or two, and then I would repeat a shortened version of this work at that time.

Now...for some general thoughts on using pressure.

In this tape, Lyra was "overfaced" for the sake of demonstration.  Asking her to work under these circumstances was more than she is trained to give, but I did it anyway because I believed there would be minimal harm and I see value in demonstrating what one can do when you run out of options, or when you cannot resist the pressure of other humans telling you to correct your dog.  It's been a very long time since I applied a leash correction to a dog, either mine or anyone else's.  If I'm going to correct, it will be personal - that's why I use pressure.  It's about me and the dog, not about a piece of equipment.  It also causes no physical pain, and (assuming there is no fear involved), it causes no mental suffering either. Pressure; yes.  Suffering, no.

I do not plan to repeat this pressure lesson with Lyra.  If I did do this again, the chickens would be much further away and my barometer of the correct distance would be how difficult it is to get her back - a few seconds is reasonable; a stretch of 15 seconds and a flattened demeanor is not.  I can get where I want to go simply by being patient and giving her more time.  I'm not in any real hurry, so no pressure on me to perform, but with my students I use pressure techniques when I think it makes sense.

If you are not comfortable with pressure release techniques, please don't use them.  If you are comfortable using them, then review the above requirements to be sure you are doing it correctly.  If you cannot get the dog back using the most severe pressure technique (moving in to the dog and forcing them backwards) then you are almost certainly asking too much, or you have worked for too long.  If you find yourself doing them frequently, then you're working in environments that are too difficult or you're not very motivating to your dog.  I hope you won't resort to the pinching and poking techniques that I'm seeing in some circles - too many dogs are being shut down from that sort of "irritation" training.

I accept comments on my blog.  However, if people misbehave and start attacking each other, I will block the comments.



it depends on the situation – Lyra would never get used to chickens in her training yard, no matter how much I let her look at them. She would also never get used to (bored with) chasing squirrels if I let her do that in her training yard. So sometimes, you get to the point where you want to convince the dog that 1) they won’t get to visit the distraction, and 2) that I actually have an opinion about their behavior. If a dog doesn’t realize that you care, then they may well check out all of the distractions and get to you and training when they are ready. But that’s not the reality of competetition – if you’re in the ring the dog needs to be able to recognize that when you are working,leaving to do something else won’t work – because I don’t allow dogs to leave work once it has begun, or once I have asked for attention.
Do note, however, that I said this was not good training for Lyra because of how I did it. Because I’m a good trainer it is pretty likely that I can train with extremely little pressure, simply by systematically increasing her love of work with very small increases in environmental interest. but many trainers are working with dogs with relatively little interest in their rewards and a high interest in whatever is out and about. You cannot use pressure to make a dog work (or at leasst I wont) but you can use it to make it clear to the dog that the choice is between work or nothing – they cannot get to their alternative interest.

Toni Bailey

Interesting approach. However, I really do not see any reward that the dog is receiving…..aside from the tugging… Which tends to rev her Up.

Why not take the leash off and let her go to the crate of chickens After she does what you ask…..THEN reward her for looking Back at you and choosing to engage….. Small steps, but soon she might realize that this Distraction is HER OPPORTUNITY for reward!


Tugging is her primary reward; she would not take food in this situation – not because she’s necessarily over threshold but because she has no interest in food under most circumstances. when she went over threshold she no longer accepted the toy. I WANT my dog revved up – as long as it is not frantic behavior, and based on her body language (ears, eyes, tail, etc.) she was in drive and not frantic in the first minute or so. Lyra’s career is such that she will be required to work in places where there are distractions that she cannot ever visit. She will trial where squirrels are running up and down trees. she will trial next to dogs running and having fun – she cannot expect that she will be allowed to take a close look at those things regardless of how well she works for me. if I used direct exposure or premack, then she would be frustrated in those situations where she was not allowed to get what she wants after she did her part (good work) – I would be breaching our agreement. I work hard to be honest with my dogs – what you get in training is as close as possible to what you will get in trial. And if someone shows up with a crate of chickens at a trial, she will never be allowed to visit them. Learning how to work in the presence of distractions – good smells, interesting sights, etc.) is a reality for a competition dog.

Cynthia Heyman

I don’t mind using appropriate pressure with my dogs and their training… like you say, it has to be appropriate for the dog. And the circumstances. I think this is an excellent article. I don’t think being a purely positive trainer all the time really works… I think dogs need to know how to handle pressure, just to be able to deal with the world. There’s pressure in the world. There are negative things that happen. I don’t want my dogs to be afraid of me or anything, but I think appropriate pressure can be a tool if used correctly. When my puppy barks when I’m training my other dogs… I can wait and ignore it until I’m blue in the face and he is NOT going to stop on his own. It’s too self reinforcing.

Julie Jenkins

this one is now in my top 5 DF blog posts, great illustration and description. the footage of ‘bad training’ showing lyra over threshold and really not in a good place is priceless. it’s all well and good to talk and write about this stuff but seeing it really brings the issues to focus, i think. Thanks for this post!

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