Teaching attention skills should be fun

I was watching a dog owner and her dog in class last week. The dog, a young mixed breed with some lab heritage, was sniffing the ground, watching the birds fly overhead, and was pulling on the leash away from his owner. His owner was holding the leash, braced against her dog, while at the same time was repeating herself, “Sit! Sit! Sit! Sit!”

Although I know she was trying to have her dog sit, she wasn’t succeeding and instead of teaching him that sit means put your hips on the ground and hold still, she was teaching him that sit means pull against the leash as hard as you can or alternately, ignore your owner. Although the dog was having a good time, his owner was increasingly getting more and more frustrated. Although she was probably teaching her dog something – after all, everything we do does teach them something – it wasn’t the lesson she was trying to teach.

To teach the dog the behaviors we want them to learn, we must get and keep the dog’s attention. How to do this varies with every dog but here are some of the skills I use with my dogs. I use a lure and reward technique for these exercises.

1. Find a motivator. If your dog likes food, that makes it easier. Choose some treats that your dog normally doesn’t get – Swiss cheese has a strong smell and taste and most dogs like it. Or use left over cooked chicken from dinner last night or some microwaved hot dogs. You need a good treat.

2. If your dog doesn’t like food, find a special tug toy, a squeaky toy, or a tennis ball.

3. The dog’s name is always positive. Say, “Fido!” in a happy voice as you pop that special treat in his mouth or toss him the toy or ball. Do this three or four times and then walk away from him. Repeat it later. And then do it again over the next few days. Pretty soon you’ll find your dog watching you intently, perhaps following you, and then sitting in front of you making eye contact. Praise him!

4. Teach him a word that means, “Watch me!” Start again with his name as you did in step 3 but as soon as he looks at you, say, “Watch me!” Then praise and reward him. Repeat three or four times, then walk away. Repeat several times over the next few days.

5. If your dog begins to look away, put that treat in front of his nose, let him sniff it, and then bring it up to your chin. As his eyes follow the treat to your face, praise him and pop the treat in his mouth.

6. When he’s watching you reliably, you can begin playing the two treat watch me game. Put a treat in each hand and hold your hands down by your sides. Then without saying anything, watch your dog. He can sniff your hands or lick them but don’t respond to these actions. However, when he looks at your face, tell him, “Good to watch me! Yeah, awesome!” and pop the treat into his mouth. Repeat, alternate giving him the treat from the right or left hand. Do this three or four times and walk away.

7. After several short training sessions over three or four days, when he’s looking at your face quickly (rather than nosing your hands), you can move on to the next step. The game is the same as it was in step 6 except hold your hands straight out to each side, at shoulder height. Wait for your dog to look at your face, praise and reward him.

8. After several more days, when your dog is doing well and looking at your reliably, you can move on and make the game a little harder. Now, repeat the game at step 6 but don’t praise and reward your dog until he looks at you for a count of three: one Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi. “Yeah! Good to watch me! Awesome!” And treat. After several days, make it five seconds, then seven seconds.

Some dogs may progress through all of these steps in a week or a week and a half. Don’t try to push through any faster as your dog needs time to master each skill and to learn that it’s fun to pay attention to you. If your dog has a hard time concentrating, take your time. There is no particular time table for this. Just keep it fun.

in my next blog post, I’ll teach some additional attention games that will help make his skills even better.

Photo: Petra Burke practices the watch me with Bashir.

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