Getting Your Dog’s Attention

Attention defines a relationship – without it, there is not much interaction.  Because we are a visual species, we gauge the level of attention our dog is paying to us by how often he looks at us or “checks in”.

Boxer smiles at camera

I have Rocco’s attention now, and I can reinforce that by marking that eye contact with a click and following with a treat or activity that he wants.  He was working inside without many distractions, so it was easy for him to respond.  Ultimately, you will want your dog to respond in many distracting environments or situations, how do you accomplish that?

If my goal is that my dog can respond to his name by looking at me in any situation, then I have to train and practice that skill.  Young puppies usually stay close to their people, and pay a lot of attention to them, but as they get older they start to explore more of the world and find it reinforcing, paying less attention to their people.   Playing the “Name Game” – saying your dog’s name and clicking and treating when he looks at you – is the most basic form of training attention.  If you have trained with me you have done this.

If you followed through with this exercise, you established a solid response to your dog’s name inside with little distraction and no distance or duration, and then worked in gradually more distracting environments to get a solid response in many different situations.  If you didn’t follow through, refresh your dog’s response to his name at close range and low distraction, and then try saying his name in
a more distracting environment.  If he is unable to respond, make it easier – find a less distracting place and try again.  Your job is to assess the training environment and VERY GRADUALLY increase the level of distraction.  In addition, make sure your reinforcement (treats or play) is of high value – let your dog tell you what he wants.

In addition, when your dog offers you attention, be prepared to reinforce that.  When I am out on a walk with my young Large Munsterlander, Deagan and he looks at me, I respond to him.  I may praise him, or click/treat, or give him a cue to do a simple behavior (cues taught with positive reinforcement are themselves reinforcing).  His attention to me in a distracting environment is reinforced in some way.  Communication goes both ways.   I do also ask for his attention at other times when he is not looking at me.  Every walk is an opportunity for training because the environment is always presenting new distractions and your dog is always learning.

Here’s one way to start working on attention at a distance – be sure your dog is good at responding to his name close to you before you try this:

Leslie McDevitt (author of Control Unleashed® books) teaches the “whiplash” turn for attention this way – toss a treat several feet away so that your dog is facing 180 degrees away from you to pick up the treat.  As he finishes chewing, say his name and click IMMEDIATELY AS HIS HEAD IS TURNING (even before he looks at you).  Deliver the treat from you hand or toss for another set-up of this exercise.  The key parts here are that the dog is some distance away from you, and you have clicked the start of the behavior – the head starting to turn.  That will get you a faster response and start to increase the distance at which the dog can respond.

photo above by Dawn Gilkison
Attention can be divided – here Arrow’s attention was divided between following the path I had indicated, jumping, and glancing at the photographer (Joe Camp)

Dog jumps over an obstacle
Multi-tasking means that attention is split:  he can’t fully focus on more than one thing, and if one thing becomes too attractive, the other things will lose out.  If the photographer is too distracting, he will not be able to follow my direction, or he may knock the jump bar.  Training the basic skills without distractions and then gradually adding them allowed Arrow to be successful at performing agility in a distracting trial environment.

Another way to get your dog’s attention is to use the distracting environment as reinforcement.  This exercise is another from Leslie McDevitt (buy her books and DVDs from called “Give Me a Break”.  You need to work in an enclosed, but somewhat distracting place, such as a fenced backyard.  Have your clicker and treats ready.  Go out into the enclosed yard with your dog off-leash and give him his release word (the cue that means you’re done working, such as OK, Break, At Ease), turning away from him at the same time.  Keep an eye on your dog, but don’t do anything to attract him.  Your dog may run around the yard for a while, but will eventually orient to you, when he does, click and treat and then dismiss him again with his release word.  You can add direction after your release word (you have trained a release word, haven’t you?) such as “Break, Go Sniff” or what I usually say “OK, Go Play”.

The enclosed area where you first practice this should not be too large or too distracting.  If there are squirrels chattering in the trees, I would not take my dog out to try this for the first time when the squirrels are present.  If your dog has trouble paying attention to you inside the house, try inside first. By practicing this, you are actually rewarding the dog orienting to you with the chance to go sniff, or go play.  Rewarding a lower probability activity (such as orienting to you outside) with a high probability activity (going to sniff or wander around the yard) is an example of the Premack principle, named for psychologist David Premack.

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