Why is my fearful dog so distracted during training?

Jul 09, 2024

Do you ever throw up your hands during a training session with your sensitive pup, because you can't seem to get them to focus? Maybe they seem easily distracted, or stubborn, or like they just don't really care about your treats.

I've noticed that when my fearful dog Pancake seems distracted, I sometimes later discover that there was something going on during our training that made him uncomfortable. The same goes for my clients' dogs. If the dog isn't responding very enthusiastically to training, or keeps looking around or wandering off, we'll review video of the session. A closer look at the training context and the dog's body language and behavior often points to the dog being nervous about something we were doing, or something else in the environment- even if there weren't big obvious signs of fear.

In the video below, I show examples of behaviors that sometimes appear to function to help a dog avoid, escape, or delay participation in a training exercise that they find aversive. These behaviors can look a lot like "distraction" or "stubbornness":

  • Hesitation to perform the behavior you're training (including hesitating to respond to cues);
  • Hesitation to eat, or food refusal;
  • Turning to look away from you;
  • Choosing other activities like sniffing or wandering away.

Of course, you can't tell why a dog is doing something just by how the behavior looks (its "topography" for you behavior nerds.) But if you have a very sensitive dog, I would view any of these versions of "failure to engage" as potential signs that my dog is scared or uncomfortable.



Do any of these behaviors look familiar to you? Shoot me an email at [email protected] and share your thoughts. 

If you're looking for more help with your fearful dog, check out the free resources here.