Teaching your dog to listen around distractions is one of the hardest parts of dog training. It’s also one of my favorite parts! Trainers call this process proofing.
I created the game “Can You Listen When…?” to help systematize my proofing strategy with my clients.
Essentially, the goal of this game is to teach your dog to be able to listen to cues and focus on you in increasingly distracting scenarios.
Rules of the "Can You Listen When...?" Proofing Game
- Get creative with cues! You can play this proofing game with any dog and any set of cues.
- Keep it doable. Be sure that your dog can already listen to a given cue (such as sit, down, stay, roll over, high five, or weave) in calm environments before starting this game! If your dog doesn't get it right at least 80% of the time (8 out of 10 trials), you're not ready to start adding distractions.
- There's no "or else" in this game. If your dog "gets it wrong," that's just information for us. That tells us it was a bit too hard right now! No big deal. Take a 1-minute (or 24-hour) break and come back tomorrow with something a bit easier.
- Be flexible. Each dog has his own definition of "hard." My own dog still struggles to listen around frisbees, balls, and sticks. But other dogs? No biggie. I've worked with many dogs that are the exact reverse - they don't care about sticks but really struggle to listen around other dogs. Don't get so rigid with the game that you forget about your learner!
- Use treats. Be sure to reward your learner when she gets it right! Food is generally the fastest training reward. I use my dog's Stella and Chewy's Meal Mixers because they don't roll away if I drop them - and it's delicious and healthy.
- Toss treats. If you're repeating the same cue over and over (practicing sit or down, for example), you'll need to toss each treat to "re-set" your dog between reps.
- Listen to your dog. If your dog starts sniffing or takes a long time to come back to you after a treat toss, that lets us know that things are a bit too hard or boring (kind of like when you check your phone at work to get away from a tough project or boring day). Try making the training a bit easier or a bit more fun.
- Be safe. Use long lines and fences to keep your dog safe in high-distraction environments.
The "Can You Listen When...?" Game
Keep training sessions short - 1 to 10 minutes is great. Be sure to end early if your dog seems distracted or stressed (ideally, wrap up before that, but mistakes happen).
Set up the distractions and start playing! These are in no particular order because you know your dog best. Start with what you think will be easy for your dog.
Where are we?
Try these at different times of day in different types of weather. Wind, rain, and darkness makes things harder!
Can you listen in...?
- A different room in the house
- The front porch
- The living room with the door open
- A suburban street
- A busy urban street
- A dog-friendly patio when it's quiet
- A dog-friendly patio when there are other dogs
- A dog-friendly business (like Lowe's, Home Depot, or ACE Hardware)
- An agility or obedience trial
- A huge open field
- A barn near livestock
Can I eat that? Can I play with that?
This one is hard! Start with less-tasty food. It's also easier if the food is further away. I generally start with boring things like broccoli or apples. I also start with that behind the dog or several meters away to the side. Don't ask your dog to step over bacon right away!
Try with this behind the dog by 6 feet, then by 3 feet, then to each side by 6 feet, then on either side by 3 feet. Eventually, ask your dog to listen with the food 3 feet in front of him. If you're working on come when called or other movement-based tasks, eventually ask your dog to step over the distractions to get to you!
Can you listen when we're near...?
- A bowl of broccoli, apples, carrots, or other uninteresting food?
- An empty food bowl?
- A bowl of kibble with a lid?
- An open bowl of kibble?
- A piece of lunch meat?
- A new squeaky toy?
- An old rope toy?
- Your favorite toy?
- A tennis ball?
- A rolling ball?
What's that Noise? What am I Standing On?
This list gets harder if the noises are louder or the surfaces are more unusual. Start with the loud noises being played on a CD or YouTube video at a low volume! If you're using "the real thing," keep it quiet and far away at first.
Can you listen when...?
- You're standing on concrete
- You're standing on loose gravel or sand
- You're standing on an elevated surface
- You're standing on metal (like a manhole cover or storm drain)
- You're on a squishy surface, like a bed or couch
- You're on stairs (if physically possible)
- You're on wet grass
- You're standing in 1-2 inches of water
- You're standing on snow or mud
- A thunderstorm music track plays
- Alarms are going off
- Dogs are barking
- Loud music is playing
- Vacuum cleaner is running
- Truck is idling
What is My Human DOING?
This one is fun! Get moving and see if your dog can listen when you're doing different things. Move slower or make smaller movements to make things easier.
Can you listen when your Human is....?
- Looking off into the distance?
- Twisting to look behind her?
- Standing at an angle?
- Facing the wall?
- Marching in place?
- Hopping on one foot in place?
- Twisting her torso?
- Jogging in place?
- Doing jumping jacks?
- Waving her arms around?
- Lying on the ground?
Hey! Who's That Over There?
This list gets harder if you add more people or have people closer by. Some dogs will also find it harder if it's dark out.
Can you listen when...?
- There's a man in the room
- There's a woman in the room
- There's a dog walking past
- There's a dog sitting with his back to you
- Puppies bark
- There's a dog playing frisbee nearby
- There's a person with a backpack nearby
- There's a person with a walker, cane, or wheelchair
- A cat walks by
A squirrel is in a tree
- Kids are playing*
- Joggers run past
- Bikers go by
- Cars go by
- Motorcycles go by
- Rollerbladers or skateboarders go by
- Baby strollers go by
- Toddlers are yelling*
- Toddlers are running*
- Babies are crawling*
- Babies are crying*
*Be safe around kids. Use leashes and baby gates to keep everyone separate!
Kayla is from Ashland, Wisconsin but lives in Missoula Montana. She holds a degree in biology from Colorado College and has spent years working in zoos, animal shelters, and as a private dog trainer. When not working on Journey Dog Training, Kayla works at Working Dogs for Conservation. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant. She shares her life with her border collie Barley.