How many times have you tried to get your dog’s attention only to end up exasperated and with your dog still doing its own thing? It is so frustrating when your dog chooses not to listen and focuses on everything else but you!
This problem is more common than you may think and often leads to frustration, and not fun, becoming the norm in the relationship. It is not uncommon for me to hear things like “he never listens to me”, “she is so stubborn” or “she is just not interested”. The good news is that it does not need to be this way.
One of the major barriers to getting our dog to focus on us is energy. Energy is the core driver of a dog’s intent and how it will choose to respond. Trying to train a dog who is like a coiled spring in terms of energy waiting to be released is somewhat challenging as their focus, and drive, will be all over the place. It is always best to let your dog run about, play fetch etc, for about 10-15 minutes or so before any training to burn off excess energy.
Further to the above your energy levels need to be managed also. If you want your dog to pay attention to you then you need to ensure that you are worth paying attention to. This often means that you need to raise your energy levels to ensure that you both interest and intrigue your dog. This does not mean that you need to always be on level 10 for energy but you should raise and lower your energies just enough to keep your dog interested in you. Energy equals frame of mind and focus and you should be the controller of this for both you and your dog.
In my book ‘Decode Your Dog’ I go into energy a bit more detail explaining why it is often the key to success or failure in dog training and behaviour.
The next important factor is what reward currency is on offer. Basically, you will be asking your dog to do something (often unnatural to it) and, when it complies, you will want to thank it for doing so by rewarding it in some manner. Oftentimes this is done via the issuing of a treat or two but this need not always be the case. If your dog is more interested in praise than treats, or toys (or a particular toy) then utilise that as your primary reward currency. However, it is important to remember that your dog must desire the reward enough that it will view the receipt of such as sufficient recompense for the effort, or efforts, it has made. If not, your dog will soon look to obtain better rewards elsewhere.
In respect of the issuing of rewards it is important that you give plenty of rewards to your dog while it is learning the new command/instruction. You can reduce the rate of reward as your dog becomes better at giving you the correct desired response but don’t rush into this lowering of the reward until you are getting the correct response consistently and within a distraction fuelled environment (see next paragraph). When you are in a position to contemplate reducing the rate of reward then do so in a random manner. If not, then your dog will very quickly work out what times will lead to a reward being issued and what times will not and respond accordingly. The key is to get the required response nearly 100% of the time (occasional set-backs can happen) before your consider varying and reducing the issue of the reward.
The next important factor is to deliver your initial training in a distraction free environment. This will allow your dog to fully focus in on you and the message in clear and unambiguous terms. Training within a distraction free environment allows your dog to receive your instruction and guidance clearly and connects the ‘reward’ to the ‘action’ directly leaving little room for doubt in your dog’s mind what is expected. Via repeated practice in a distraction free environment your dog will embed the command to the desired response more easily. You can then slowly introduce distractions as you consistently get the desired responses from your dog.
The final important factor is focus. You need your dog’s eyes on you. If you don’t have this then you don’t have 100% engagement and the success of your training will suffer as a result. Eye contact is crucial. Ensure that not only your dog’s eyes are on you but your eyes are on it. You will be surprised how well you will get to know your dog via observation. Not only this, if your attention does wander, your dog will pick up on this and will do likewise. I have written a blog on eye contact which you can access below via the related links. However, the key is to be interesting and engaging acting as an incentive for your dog to pay attention to you rather than anything else (potentially more interesting) elsewhere. It is a challenge at times but if your teach your dog to look at you almost as the very first thing you teach it then this will give you a great platform to build from when training everything else!
To achieve this, get a treat and hold it in front of your nose. As soon as your dog looks at it (and by default you) then give it the treat. There is no instruction at this point. Repeat several times until you feel that you dog understands it gets the treat by looking at you (and, of course, the treat). Once your dog is doing this consistently then introduce a “look at me” command just before you give out the treat. Note: don’t give the treat straight away after issuing the instruction – if you wait 1 to 3 seconds before you give your dog the treat then this will embed the command.
Now repeat this exercise but this time hold the treat to the side of your face. This time reward your dog when it looks at you and not the treat (even if it is a quick glance as small wins are better than no wins). Again, issue the instruction “look at me” before you give your dog its reward. Repeat this with the aim of moving your hand away from your face (eventually through to full extension) and reward your dog when it looks at you and not the treat upon hearing the command “look at me”.
Once your dog does this consistently, test it frequently and randomly to ensure the when your dog hears “look at me” that it understands, without doubt, that he/she is to look at you. You can phase out the treats throughout time once your dog gets it but always retain the praise.