One of the most important things you can do as a trainer of your nosework dog is to work on distractions. Sure, you can hope to avoid them or focus on interpreting your dog’s body language, but if that is all you are focused on, you are really missing the point of the entire exercise.

When we train for distractions in containers, we are working two incredibly important skills: Discrimination and Impulse Control. These skills are critical if you ever want to progress beyond the ability to work contained distractions and apply your skills in a highly distracting environment where the dog can naturally access all of those things that can divert them from their job.

Screenshot from a Summit Search I did with Judd. I don't even want to know what that pump is for! Talk about a Distraction!
Screenshot from a Summit Search I did with Judd. I don’t even want to know what that pump is for! Talk about a Distraction!

Distraction training is one of the D’s of Detection Training. In my opinion there are six: Distance, Duration, Distraction, Diversion, Difficulty, and Discrimination. For a humorous discussion on the D’s I encourage you to listen to the K9 Detection Collaborative Podcast episode from April 25, 2022. If nothing else, you will be entertained!

Ultimately, we want our dogs to ignore and work through any level of distraction that they might encounter in a fashion where as a handler, we can only assume that the distractions aren’t there to begin with!

This has nothing to do with “training for the level”.

In NW2, you will likely have three contained distractions in your container search, comprised of both food and non-food. But you will also have a lot of empty containers. In NW3, you might not even see a distraction! However, fast forward to Elite and Summit and not only will you occasionally see a container search, but get ready for some distractions that exist on the more heinous level. Before I got on the Distraction Train, Judd, my first Summit dog, false alerted on BBQ ribs TWICE at the Elite Level on two separate occasions. Honestly, not that I can blame him… BBQ Ribs are tasty!

When I was prepping for NW2 with my youngest dog, Prize (14 months old in this video), I worked distractions so strongly that we were able to run this search successfully in a training session (39 distractions, both contained and loose):

But training distractions is a PAIN!!!

Actually it isn’t!

But before we go there, let’s talk about some things that might bend your brain a little:

Empty Containers are Useless

That’s right! Empty containers are USELESS!! Your dog was born with an exceptional nose. That nose can detect such faint odors as cancer and can tell the difference between a human corpse and your standard roadkill. Your dog has the ability to smell the passage of time or follow a human trail that is days old. Do you think your dog can’t tell if a box is empty? And if the box IS empty, what is the point in actually searching it?

Dogs Don’t Logic the Way You Logic

Seriously, they don’t. So you think you trained your dog on Birch! Guess what? Unless you have actually taught your dog that ONLY Birch pays, your dog can and will easily draw the conclusion that the box that smells different is correct. And you know what? Unless you have actively trained with distractions in other containers, your dog would be correct! Why? Because only the hot box isn’t empty.

Discrimination Means “This Not That”

When your dog has to learn to pick the correct odor, NOT just the only non-empty box, your dog will actually learn WHAT target odor they are supposed to find. Go to any Odor Recognition Test or AKC Scent Work trial accepting move-ups and hang out and listen. I guarantee you will overhear at least one competitor mentioning that they passed a search without introducing the target odor. Why is that? Because their dog has learned to indicate on the odor that doesn’t seem to belong! If you don’t train for Discrimination, sure the Q might happen, but that is a super way to shoot yourself in the foot for the future.

Impulse Control is Important

Watch a dog who is learning that distractions are not available OR watch a dog encounter something like BBQ Ribs for the first time in a container. What you will see is destructive behavior as the dog attempts to extract the tasty morsel out of the box. Is that the type of indication that you want to reinforce?

So why don’t people train for distractions?

Well, assuming that they understand WHY it’s important, and assuming that they actually train containers themselves, most people who don’t train for distractions don’t do it because it’s a pain to set them up.

That is a myth. Distraction Training can be easy and convenient!

So how can we make Distraction Training EASY?

This is the super easy part! All you need to do is to get a bunch of small deli containers the size that could hold a half a dozen olives (think antipasto!) and punch 5 or 6 holes in the lids. Head over to your fridge or pantry and put whatever you can find into as many of the containers as you have.

Some leftover watermelon rind is a great distraction to push the dog's impulse control!
Some leftover watermelon rind is a great distraction to push the dog’s impulse control!

You will need to work up this level of training of course! Start easy. Low value vegetables like lettuce are super to start with. Dogs are like us. They like proteins and carbs so save those for later. Think about training Discrimination first and Impulse Control second.

When you work your dog, pay attention to what your dog was highly interested in. In your next session, retain the most challenging distraction and swap out everything else with something new.

You can easily rotate your distractions if you can keep them fresh!

Keeping them “fresh” is pretty easy! Go on Amazon and get some large mylar bags. Mylar has excellent odor protection properties. This means that your distractions will retain their smelly state if you use them for storage. Of course your watermelon may start to smell a little bit like pork chop, but since we are using them for distraction training, that really is ok.

You can put quite a few distractions in a large mylar bag!
You can put quite a few distractions in a large mylar bag!

If you want to rotate your distractions (and you should!) you can put your mylar bags in the freezer. Pull out the distractions that you would like to use on any day and keep the rest in the freezer. As you set out your container search to age, your distraction will defrost. Keep in mind that the warmer the distraction is, the smellier it will be. So if you want to proof your dog off of a particularly challenging distraction, try running it frozen!

You don't need a chest freezer but if you have one, think of all of the great distractions you can store!
You don’t need a chest freezer but if you have one, think of all of the great distractions you can store!

So go train!

Comment below and let me know how your distraction training is coming along! Until next time….