Attention: the foundation for all training
Today's article is about the importance of getting a dog's attention before any other training takes place. Sounds like an obvious detail, right? If we don't have the dog's attention, we can't teach them something new. The dog also can't respond to 'known' cues when their attention is focused elsewhere. This lack of attention is something I regularly see pet parents struggle with.
When I say attention, I mean the dog's ability to turn their head in your direction and focus on you.
It's actually an easy skill to introduce. To begin, you'll need to choose a location that is comfortable for the dog and low in distractions. Say her name (a word she already knows) in a pleasant tone of voice, and as soon as she looks at you, deliver a meaningful reward.
When she's doing well in low-distraction settings, gradually work around increasing distractions and in new locations, until this becomes a strong and reliable skill.
In addition to rewarding my own dogs for orienting to me when I say their name, I'm also generous about rewarding them when they focus on me without me asking for it, especially when they choose to do this in the presence of a distraction. With steady practice, the distractions in the environment can actually become the dog's cue to look at me, which is really nifty.
Once you have the dog's attention, it's now possible to teach new skills. And, after you've introduced a new skill in a low-distraction setting, you'll need to practice in new environments, with gradually increasing distractions. This takes time and consistent training, and is essential if you want a dog who can reliably focus on you and respond promptly to your cues no matter where you are or what's going on. Please don't be lulled into thinking that a skill you've trained around the house with minimal distractions is going to hold up in new and tantalizing situations, unless you work diligently to reach that goal.
Here's an example of the importance of getting your dog's attention first, before you can realistically expect her to be able to respond to other cues:
I was recently working with a client in New Fairfield who was having a difficult time getting her dog to respond to the SIT cue when I first arrived. The dog was completely and excitedly focused on me, but the pet parent was sure her dog understood how to sit already, and was frustrated she wasn't listening in that moment. The problem is that sitting when a guest first arrives can be a Herculean task for an excitable greeter!
When the dog 'ignores' your instruction in a situation like this, it usually means her focus is not on you. She's not being stubborn. She's not trying to embarrass you. And if you repeat the cue in an escalating tone of voice, you're likely to add more tension to the situation, rather than getting the dog to comply. What she really needs is some more distance from the exciting distraction, and a really, really good reason to focus on you instead of the guest.
Adding distance between the dog and whatever is distracting her is an important first step, no matter what skill you're working on. This could mean the dog has to be on leash and positioned away from the door, or behind a baby gate, when a guest first arrives.
Next, I'll often coach the pet parent to begin delivering tasty treats for any behavior that excludes straining or jumping or vocalizing at the guest. Forget about the SIT at first. Create a baby step that allows the dog to be successful, and then reward. For instance, you can deliver a treat when the dog:
Briefly looks anywhere, as long as it's not at the guest
Pauses and stops moving for a moment
Glances at you for a 1/2 second
This will help get the dog back into 'thinking mode' rather than just reacting excitedly towards the guest. Next, I suggest the pet parent begin delivering treats to the floor. If the dog is willing to take the extra second or two to find and snuffle up that goodie, we're heading in the right direction.
Subsequent treats can be lobbed in the opposite direction (away from where the guest is standing), so the dog willingly moves away. Once that treat is consumed, she has another opportunity to practice moving in the guest's direction, but well before the dog can get too close, another treat is lobbed behind her.
Note: if your dog is ignoring the treats, you need to find something far more delicious to train with. Fresh proteins usually fit the bill. I can't tell you how many dogs I see who ignore decent treats in a distracting scenario, but instantly focus when the food is superb. Don't discount this important tip.
Before long, the dog is happily engaged in ping-ponging between pet parent and tossed treats. The act of searching for and consuming treats seems to have a calming effect on many dogs. Once she's calmer, you can now ask her to do a simple skill like SIT while in the presence of the distraction, and she will have a much greater chance of responding correctly. When that happens, you can begin closing the distance between her and the guest, while continuing to deliver treats for calmer, focused behavior.
I regularly see pet parents' training efforts foiled when they don't acknowledge attention as a vital foundation skill. If you hone this skill in lots of different settings and around all kinds of distractions, subsequent training will go much more smoothly. And remember, if you find yourself in a distracting situation, add more distance (if you can) and go back to the basics to get your dog's attention before asking for any other behaviors.
Virginia Dare is a certified dog trainer & behavior counselor with decades of experience. Her business offers live video consultations anywhere in the US for training and behavior help, along with pre- and post-arrival counseling for new puppy parents.
She also provides in-home, private lessons and behavior consultations in the northern areas of Fairfield and Westchester counties, western New Haven county, Putnam and southern Dutchess counties.
Please visit www.NorthStarCanines.com/services to learn more, or contact me at 804.784.0120