Understanding Situational Awareness Is Key to Success
Maintaining a dog’s attention during high levels of arousal and distraction is the challenge of developing a well-trained dog. It is particularly important when we’re dealing with dogs that have reactivity problems.
It is one thing to have a dog walk nicely on a leash when nothing is around but an entirely different issue when you have to get past another excited, barking pooch.
Training your dog to become reliable takes practice and successful repetition. I emphasize the word successful because repetition does not do much good if the dog isn’t practicing correctly.
Practicing mistakes only reinforces the wrong behavior.
A key element to achieving dog training success is having the ability to intervene in behavior changes early in the process before a dog becomes fully committed to the triggers or distractions around them.
For example: If the dog is one that becomes reactive in the proximity of other dogs, we greatly increase the chances of keeping Fido under control if we proactively maintain the dog’s focus before they start to whine, growl, bark or lunge. Getting control back after those behaviors have started is much more challenging.
In order to practice proactive intervention, we need to understand and improve our situational awareness. Too often we are caught off guard because our focus is in the wrong place at the wrong time.
We get so consumed looking down at our dog, we forget to notice what is coming up ahead, often we have our eyes glued to our cell phones, or we’re simply too engrossed in conversation that we fail to be aware of what is around us.
Our dogs are aware, though. They alert and change their body language as soon as they notice things in the environment. Those are the moments we need to intervene in order to prevent escalation from happening.
In order to notice those moments, you have to be paying attention. Paying attention is as much of a learned skill for you, as it is for your dog. If you want to achieve successful dog training you must improve your ability to notice your surroundings and become predictive of possibilities.
Improving your situational awareness
1. Put Away Your Phone
Smartphones are great for creating target lock and distracting us from everything else. We can’t seem to take our eyes off them if they are in our hand, so put it away in a pocket or pouch.
2. Scan Your Surroundings and Predict Possibilities
You don’t need to have your head on a swivel and be looking in all directions all the time, but you should “look ahead” just as you were taught when you learned to drive.
Be on the lookout for upcoming changes that may present a challenge to your dog’s composure. If there is a blind turn ahead on the hiking trail, it is the safest bet to have your dog heeling next to you, rather than romping ahead when you go around the curve. Better safe than sorry since you don’t know what is around the corner.
If you are approaching a fenced yard, there is potential for a dog to be behind it who’s barking and lunging could create a lot of stress. Or worse, there might be an open gate in the fence line that would allow escape and a loose dog to charge you.
3. Be Alert and Move with Intention
While out and about with Fido, think ahead to any potential possibilities your pup may face. This will better prepare you for how to react.
Learn to alter your course earlier to avoid potential problems. You will also become far more practiced in communicating with your dog so you can maintain focus and navigate smoothly past areas of challenge.
Practice all of the above and your dog just might start to believe you are a capable leader, worthy of paying attention to.