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Just a few weeks ago, I bought a drone (a DJI Mavic 2 with the Fly More package, to be precise). I was equal parts excited and embarrassed.
But with my upcoming trip to the Arctic Ocean, I wanted the opportunity to get great footage. As a conservation detection dog handler, skijoring competitor, and a trail runner, I was especially excited to get great footage of my really, really, really ridiculously good-looking dogs.
Knowing my dogs, though, I couldn’t just flip the drone on and expect them to ignore the buzzing giant mosquito following them around. Barley was likely to chase it, and I was sure Niffler would either bark at it, chase it, or be downright petrified of it.
Perhaps you, like me, are the proud new owner of a drone. Or perhaps you’re a drone pilot who gets asked to film dogs for client projects. Like me, you know that you want to get this right. It’s much easier to properly introduce the drone to a dog than it is to help a dog overcome a phobia of drones (or a drone-chasing frenzy).
Here’s how a professional dog trainer introduces dogs to a drone
- Ensure the dogs are happy, relaxed, and comfortable in our training environment. If the pups are already wound up or stressed out, we’re not likely to succeed.
- Prepare some treats. You’ll want to ensure you can pay your dogs for good behavior and promote non-drone-chasing activities. Eating food and chasing a drone are incompatible for most dogs, so food is a great tool here.
- Tether the dogs to a secure location. I used the grab-bar on my van with climbing carabiners clipping the dogs’ long lines to it. You could use any sort of secure leash setup. I suggest a longer leash and a back-clip harness so that your dog has ample room to move around and won’t hurt their throat if they do lunge at the drone.
- Let your pups investigate the drone while it’s turned off and in your hand. Don’t make a big deal of this! We don’t want to pique their interest or tease them. But letting your dogs get a sniff in can help them feel at ease. They’ll be less interested in the boring hunk of plastic compared to you holding a mystery item.
- Take the drone out of reach of the dogs. I started about 10m (33 feet) away from the reach of the dogs’ leashes. If you expect your dog to react strongly, go further. Do ensure you’re out of reach of the dogs!
- If your dog can’t relax with you that far away, you’ll need to get a helper! I suggest having the helper pilot the drone while you manage the dogs, since your dogs will be more comfortable with you helping then.
- Turn the drone on. If your pups perk up at the slight beeping and whirring, scatter some treats in the grass. If they don’t notice, no need to draw attention to the drone by throwing food everywhere.
- If needed turn the drone off, turn it back on, and repeat until they barely twitch an ear. If this was already eventful for your dogs, come back and train again tomorrow. If they didn’t even notice the first time, proceed to step 7.
- With my dogs, I was able to go right from 6-7 with no treats. See the video below.
- Liftoff. Tell the drone to take off. This is where the dog training gets a bit tricky, since it’s not ideal dog training to go from “drone is on” to “drone is actively whirring and moving” without intermediate steps for the dogs. Let the drone hover in place and feed your dogs treats for calm compliance. Disinterest is the goal here so don’t overdo it with your dog interactions! See in my video below for Niffler’s first look at the drone. I LOVE how he looks away from the drone. That’s my cue that I can fly the drone higher and move it more. Boredom is the goal!
8. Fly the drone high and far from the dogs, especially at first. It takes a while before even the calmest dogs can ignore a drone that’s following them for filming. If they get desensitized to the drone as it flies 100m above them and/or far to the side, you are less likely to trigger a chase response. Notice how I flew Mosquito (my DJI Mavic 2 drone) far and high from the dogs right away. Nothing to see here, pups. Nice and boring!
Ongoing: Gradually fly the drone lower and/or faster in relation to the dogs.
Over time, you’ll be able to gradually fly the drone lower and faster near the dogs. It’s still important to be extremely careful not to frighten or hurt your dogs with the drone, so don’t go crazy with this step. My goal was to be able to get search footage of my dogs, so I wanted to be able to fly my drone about 5m above them – right above them.
This sort of flying takes some practice as both a pilot and a dog trainer, so be patient. Ensure your drone piloting skills are ready for this challenge before you introduce the dogs. Practice flying low, navigating obstacles, and tracking people or vehicles manually (without using the Spotlight feature – it won’t work on animals).
Don’t rush this! If at any point your dog starts barking, lunging, chasing, or running away from the drone (or even just perking up or cowering), go back several steps and reassess. Use lots of food to reward the behaviors you like.
Let us know if you need any assistance – we’re happy to help other drone pilots get great footage of their pups.
Kayla founded Journey Dog Training in 2013 to provide high-quality and affordable dog behavior advice. She is a Certified Dog Behavior Consultant who’s worked with hundreds of private clients, thousands of shelter dogs, and dozens of working detection dogs. Kayla’s dog and cat behavior advice has been featured in NPR, the Chicago Tribune, and Pet MD. She’s an avid adventurer who is currently doing #vanlife on the Pan-American Highway with her two border collies and a cat. Aside from running Journey Dog Training, Kayla also runs the nonprofit K9 Conservationists, where she and the dogs work as conservation detection dog teams. You can get 1:1 advice with a Journey Dog Training team member here.