However, here are some suggestions for ways in which you can use the environment to your advantage to help regain your dog’s focus outside. Andy and Mimi highly recommend #2 and Mimi is also a big fan of #4 :). We’d love to know if you have any more suggestions?
1. Train in different environments. Of course, just because your dog knows how to ‘stay’ or recall in your house doesn’t mean that your dog knows how to do it outside! Unlike humans, dogs struggle to generalise behaviour and learning can be highly specific to environmental factors. For instance, if a dog is only taught to “sit” in one location, the dog will pair the location with the behaviour and may struggle to repeat the behaviour in a different environment at first. To ‘proof’ your dog’s training skills, practice in multiple environments. Start off training a new behaviour in a boring room of your house, then start start afresh in other parts of the house, then the garden, then outdoor locations with increasing distractions. Eventually your dog will generalise this behaviour and respond reliably in new locations. Proofing behaviour is so important for fundamental skills such as lead-walking, stay/wait, recalls and response to name.
2. Enrich the environment yourself. Environments are full of enrichment by their nature and your dog will inevitably enjoy exploring by himself. However, it is important for your dog to view you as a source of fun and excitement too. ‘The sausage tree’ is a technique that owners often enjoy as well as dogs. While on a walk, wait until your dog is distracted (or enlist a helper to do so), go over to a tree/bench/rock/log/rough surface and hide tiny pieces of sausage, liver or other smelly treats around in the nooks and crannies. Go back to your dog and, using encouraging tone of voice and gestures, direct him towards the treat-loaded object and let him use his nose to see what is there. Allow your dog to sniff out each tasty morsel and spend as long as he wants on this game. Make sure you have placed some pieces out of easy reach so he has to use his mind and muscles to find them. He may even look towards you to help him get those extra little crumbs he can’t reach! This is a great activity not only to exercise your dog’s body and mind but also to build on your dog’s focus and on working as a team. ‘Sprinkles’ is another way to provide environmental enrichment. Scatter small, smelly treats around in grass or leaves and then encourage your dog to sniff and search for the treats. Treat games are best played in quiet environments with no unknown dogs or people around. Scentwork activities are very rewarding and calming for dogs and it is remarkable how much difference just 10 minutes of scentwork can make to a dog's behaviour.
3. Use the environment as a reward. Does your dog go berserk with excitement before you have even stepped out of the front door? Does he pull you towards his favourite field or bolt out of the car at full pelt? As much as we all love to see our dogs expressing unbridled joy, if a dog is already pumped full of adrenaline and too excited/stressed to think straight before you have even started the walk, this is not ideal. Any kind of overarousal, even excitement, is a form of stress and can cause health problems in excess. If the environment itself is a huge prize for your dog, you can use that as a reward for desired behaviour. For instance, you can get into the habit of asking your dog to offer sustained eye contact, touch or a sit/wait before you leave the house to start your walk. This takes time and repetition to train at first, but once a habit is established your dog will offer this behaviour instinctively in order to get the reward of the walk. This training can be used at other times too, for instance asking your dog to wait while you open the gate to a field (use the lead at first to prevent him bolting through). If a dog tends to be very overaroused on walks, it helps to take some time and wait for him to calm and settle in a new environment before starting to explore.
4. Use the environment as equipment. If your dog always wants to be busy and you struggle to gain his attention during walks, try using the environment as an agility course or urban parkour. This works best if you teach your dog some agility cues at home first but you can also start outdoors using luring. Encouraging your dog to weave through trees, jump on logs, climb under bicycle racks, balance along walls etc. is a great way to entertain and exercise them on walks whilst keeping their focus and engagement towards you. It also helps build a dog’s confidence, balance, mobility and strength. Remember to start small and work up, especially with puppies or nervous dogs.