When you are working on helping your dog become less reactive towards other dogs, a factor that often comes about is having difficulty even having them focus on you rather than the environment. One reason this can happen is a dog’s distress about being in outdoor locations where many of their triggers (stressors) have been in the past. Another reason might be being overstimulated by all the novel smells and sights in the new place. Still another reason may be the expectation that the environment is one in which independent play takes place, not training activities that are focus-dependent.

Recently a client contacted me asking for help with her reactivity class training homework with her dog. One suggestion I had made was to find a location where she could watch dogs at a distance while working on the training activities she had learned in class. She chose to take her dog to a great place, the far side of a parking lot opposite a pet store where she could expect to see some dog-traffic entering and exiting the store.

Here’s what she told me…

We’ve been trying to do homework in the parking lot of a (pet store). The problem that we’ve been having is that when we get out of the car Humbolt is very amped up and focused on sniffing anything and everything. It takes him a good 10-20 minutes to start responding to treats or commands and he during this time he pulls on his leash like a maniac. He never really calms down and has a harder time with the dog exercises than during walks. Do you have any suggestions?

Here’s what I wrote back…

Thanks for getting in touch about the challenges you have been facing at the (store) parking lot. I’m glad that you are getting out and practicing! It definitely sounds like a challenge.

I would recommend taking things gradually and working on getting Humbolt used to the “foreign” environment before attempting any dog-dog reactivity training there. This may actually (at first) be taking place inside your car in a new location to make it easier to calm down and focus. Later on you can graduate to just outside the car, then slightly away from the car, using your mat as a focal point for relaxing.

Here are some ideas…

  1. I would recommend working on counter-conditioning (feeding for noises outside the car) and training (down stay) rather than walking around the parking lot since that gets Humbolt worked up.
  2. First work on rewarding him for maintaining the rolled-out down inside the car with the doors closed and the windows rolled up. Be prepared for this to take several visits and be prepared to leave after just a short while if he is unable to settle or focus on you. Also always be prepared to take it back to an earlier stage if he is having a hard time.
  3. Once you have achieved a consistent level of calm and focus on you with everything closed up, which may or may not happen in your first visit to the parking lot, you can roll the windows down a crack and work on the same behavior again until you get calm.
  4. Next try the same thing with the doors open a crack and you working on calming him down on his mat (in the car still) with his leash attached.
  5. Next try the same thing just outside the car on the mat.
  6. Next time, start with calming on the mat just outside the car, then getting up and walking around (fairly close by) and then returning to relax.
  7. Next time, start with calming on the mat just outside the car, then walk around the parking lot playing the get-it (aka find-it game) or asking for obedience (sit, down) skills in different locations.
At this stage, I would expect Humbolt to be having a much easier time focusing on you and enjoying his time in the parking lot as he works with you. A little bit of sniffing in-between training sessions seeing dogs would be a good thing to add in to help him have some “down” time and relax between harder stuff that he is doing.

Teaching your dog (or other furry or feathered friend) to learn how to calm down in new locations is really useful and can make other training activities in those places go faster and be less frustrating for everyone involved. Dogs and other pets are often distracted from focusing on you by their senses (smell, sight, etc.) or they may be experiencing their own version of post-traumatic stress which is inhibiting their learning. Take your time and make paying attention to you fun and rewarding for them.  🙂

I hope that you find these ideas helpful and use them to help your distracted (or stressed) pet succeed.


My clients recently wrote back to us about Humbolt…

The advice you gave us about Humbolt in the (store) parking lot has been working great, and is a great tool for anytime we take him somewhere new. Thanks again.