Downeast Dog News

Help! My Dog Gets Distracted (And Sometimes Wild and Crazy!!!) in Public

By Don Hanson, ACCBC, BFRAP, CDBC, CPDT-KA | Aug 01, 2018
Photo by: Debra Bell

When we put our dogs into new situations, they often divert their attention away from us and toward anything and everything but us. Sometimes they even get a little over-enthusiastic or what some people consider CRAZY. One example of this is the dog in a training class that is more attentive to the instructor than the person they live with 24/7. Students often attribute this to a mystical ability only found in dog trainers, but it comes down to something much simpler. The dog trainer, provided he is reward-based and pleasant, is also often more interesting than you merely because he is novel and different. Remember, living with you 24/7 leads to a sense of familiarity which can cause, no offense intended, boredom (yawn!). I understand why you want your dog to learn self-control, especially in public situations. To get focused, undistractable behavior you need first need to understand why you may not be able to hold your dog's attention.

Your dog is young and well socialized. - Remember when you were young and carefree? Every new thing you experienced was exciting and an excuse to have some fun. Young dogs can be much the same way, especially if you did a good job socializing and habituating them so that they are not fearful. Pat yourself on the back and let your dog enjoy the moment because you will be sad the day he loses that enthusiasm.

Your dog is insufficiently trained for the situation in which he has been placed. If you have attended a dog training class, hopefully, you have learned that dogs do not generalize well. In fact, if you teach your dog the sit behavior to pure perfection, but only train your dog in your kitchen, your dog may be clueless if you cue him to sit in the living room or at a park filled with novel distractions. Dogs need to learn a behavior in a wide variety of environments and situations before you can expect them to respond to a cue in almost any situation. I am not just talking about teaching your dog in various spaces but also around a wide variety of distractions. Also, recognize you need to do this in small increments. Just because your dog will sit in front of one motionless child that he knows does not mean he will sit in front of seven children he does not know that are running around erratically while giggling.

Your dog has not learned the benefit of focusing on you. One of the first and most important behaviors we teach in our classes is the Attention or Look behavior. Attention is all about teaching your dog that focusing on you is one of the most rewarding things that he can do. Training your dog to pay attention to you is fundamental to teaching him anything else. A great Look behavior eases teaching both Leave It and Heeling. If you do it right, increasing difficulty and distractions in tiny increments, you will be able to maintain focus in distracting environments. FMI -

Your dog finds interactions with others more rewarding than you. If your dog is going through the motions with you and would rather be with anyone but you, you need to stop training and focus entirely on restoring your relationship. Years ago one of my employees kicked me out of a class because Gus and I were just going through the motions. We were working, but neither of us was having fun. It was the best advice I could have received. Do NOT delay, find a dog trainer who can help you and your dog rediscover the fun in one another! FMI -

Your dog is fearful and stressed. Not everyone can tell when a dog is stressed or afraid. In some cases, a dog might shut down and freeze doing nothing at all, and other times he might be bouncing around acting crazy. I believe everyone should be aware of how a dog expresses his or her emotional state through body language. FMI -

Reinforce the bond you have with your dog on a regular basis, train him with rewards and fun to respond in the environments that he will experience, keep him out of stressful situations and be patient. Do these things and your dog will focus on you.


Don Hanson is the co-owner of the Green Acres Kennel Shop ( in Bangor where he has been helping people with their pets since 1995. He also produces and co-hosts The Woof Meow Show heard on AM620 -WZON every Saturday at 9 AM. Podcasts of the show are available at Don also writes about pets at his blog: He is committed to pet care and pet training that is free of pain, force, and fear. The opinions in this column are those of Don Hanson.