We have all seen a dog that has been trained in the yard and responds perfectly in that yard. Then you put that dog and his handler in a new and different place, the dog acts as if he has never been trained. The difference is distraction levels. Dogs are poor at generalizing a behavior. They have a strong tendency to associate a new behavior with the place where is was learned. They also have a strong tendency to lose focus on a new behavior when various distracting factors appear, such as another dogs, new people, new odors, etc. After mastering a behavior in one place, the dog needs additional training to master that behavior in the face of distraction. The major factors of distraction are:
Distance from trainer
The proper way to "proof" for distractions is to engineer the scenarios such that the distraction levels are increasing in increments small enough that the dog is generally successful.
The wrong way to proof for distractions is to train the basic behavior in the yard; then go try it in the face of a very large distraction and then punish failure to perform in the face of that distraction.
The two general principles are:
(1) Start at low distraction and build gradually. The goal is to make each increase small enough that the dog will be successful.
(2) Each time you crank up the distraction simplify the behavior.
The easiest way to do this on obedience and steadiness is to put the dog on leash for the first couple of renditions of a major distraction increase. Then when the dog's proficiency increases, take off the leash. This may be as simple as putting pup on leash for the first 2 minutes of the exercise and then going off-leash for the remaining five minutes of the exercise.
The more your dog's training incorporates these factors, then the more generalized it will become. The behavior will become more dependable and predictable in new and different environments.
A Training Plan
A good plan to achieve generalized proficiency with the behaviors of sitting and heeling calmly is this:
1. Establish the behavior in the yard
2. When the behavior is proficient then add distractions. Stay in that location but start adding distraction
a. New people
b. New people bouncing basketballs, tennis balls etc.
c. New dogs - with the new dogs first heeling or on-leash with people (so you can control how close they come to the trainee dog). Then off leash and loose.
d. New dogs running around and retrieving
3. Then move it to a new location with low cover and run thru some distractions again
4. Then move to a third location with medium cover and add more distractions.
5. Then move to a fourth location with medium cover and add more distractions.
The distractions should start small and be added in small enough increments that the dog can perform correctly the behavior and thus buy a reward. A major tactic to govern the magnitude of a distraction is to use distance. Start with the distraction at a distance and move it closer in increments that the dog can tolerate without deviating from the desired behavior.
For Example for a dog sitting quietly, start with leash on, and put a person 40 ft away bouncing a basket ball . Gradually move the person closer while periodically rewarding the dog for sitting quietly.
After 2 or 3 sessions of 3 to 5 minutes each the basket ball bouncer should be able to bounce the ball within 5 or 10 feet of the off-leash dog without unduly distracting the dog from heeling, sitting and staying. Similarly add in the other distractions gradually, beginning at a low level and increasing in a gradual manner.
Whistle Stopping and Casting
If the dog is going to perform well his primary conservation function of retrieving the long unseen cripple, then he needs to be fairly proficient at stopping on a whistle signal and taking a directional cast.
In the case of directional control, distance is a major distraction factor. The further away the dog is from the handler is, the less under control the dog is under. There are two key points in managing the distraction level in whistle stopping and hand signals. They are:
1. Train the whistle stopping and hand signals before the dog has had many marked (seen) retrieves.
If you want to teach a person to like broccoli, you don't give the person ice cream every day for 6 months before trying the broccoli. You feed the person broccoli for a while until he likes it. Then you give him ice cream occasionally. Marked retrieves are like ice cream. They are great fun for pup and they are connected with a hardwired instinctive prey drive. Whistle stopping and hand signals are like broccoli. They are foreign behaviors for the dog and not inherently valuable to him. You can give value to whistle stopping and hand signals by training them before the dog has much exposure to marked retrieves. That way, when you are training the stops and casts he does not know what he's missing.
Some folks have trouble with the concept of not giving pup lots of marked retrieves when he is young. They think that he need training to retrieve seen falls. That is not valid information. Mother Nature has given pup the talent of retrieving seen falls. For pup's ancestors to survive, they had to be able to go and catch a bird that might land in a field a hundred yards away. If they could not go to it and catch it, then they did not survive very long.
Retrieving seen falls is an innate, inherited behavior. Pup does not need much training of it.
2. Build distraction level before you build distance. Get the whistle stopping and casting behaviors
very solid within 30 yards. Then introduce distractions while still keeping within 30 yards. When the dog is doing well with high distraction on short blind retrieves, you can then start stretching him out.
If you follow these guidelines and carefully build the dog's tolerance for distraction, you will find that he will remain a stellar performer when he is exposed to maximum distraction. When there are 100 ducks working and 6 guns shooting, he will retain his good manners. When there are several birds down and a long unseen cripple to pick first, pup will perform like an old pro.
Any trainer can get a dog to behave fairly well in a sterile environment. Good trainers condition the dog to operate calmly and cooperatively in a high distraction environment. You can really see the difference in a duck blind with many ducks working, several hunters shooting, and multiple ducks falling.