Acclimation and Engagement
Before a dog can search in a novel environment, it is critical that they acclimate to their surroundings. They will let you know when they are ready to engage with you and work. Some dogs are very handler focused while others are more focused on the environment. Iona is more focused on the environment and this makes her a great independent searcher. However, this same quality also makes her more prone to be distracted by lizards, flies, and interesting smells. Before I search her in a new area, I always take time to acclimate her. I bound to a small area then just let her investigate to her hearts content. I do not cue her to attend to me. When she engages with me on her own volition, I throw a big party as I back up: Lots of treats and lots of praise. Then I tell her that she is free and we repeat the cycle. Eventually she becomes stuck at my side even if I try to get her to leave. At this point, I will often do some simple obedience activities because she is so ready to work.
Here is a video of Iona acclimating and engaging before a search. You can see that she knows the game. We are not in a particularly interesting area and she knows that she is about to search so she is really ready to work. When I first started this with Iona, It took a LOT longer than this. However, the important part is that it is HER choice to engage with me. This makes a huge difference in the dog’s willingness to work.
It is a good idea to teach your dog to work through some environmental distractors before they even start searching through them. The concepts are the same as acclimation/engagement except the stakes are higher, there is now a distractor present. One thing to note is that environmental distractors are distance dependent, Iona would not have been able to leave this squirrel if it was 5 feet away. If your dog is truly stuck on the distractor, then you will need to get some more distance. You can see that I just wait her out and when she does look up at me and make eye contact, I throw her a party while walking away (sorry for the shaky camera work). I will note that Iona will watch squirrels or lizards for hours on end, so I have taught her that when I say, “lets go” and she comes with me, she immediately gets a treat. We walk in a park every morning with these guys so this is critical.
For your homework, practice acclimating your dog in a variety of settings without searching. Start easy (inside your house) and progressively work your way to more difficult settings. While this does take more time in the beginning, it pays off in the long term.