Twelve Tips to Build Focus and Attention

“Successful dog training depends upon attention,” says Dawn Jecs, of Puyallup, WA and the creator of the Choose-to-Heel training program. “If a dog is distracted or disengaged from his owner while training, his learning progress is slow.”

The owner often then tries to force the dog to learn using any number of different training techniques. Jecs says that although the dog may learn, an adversarial training technique can cause relationship issues, the most obvious being that neither the dog nor the owner will enjoy the training. A much easier way to train is to teach the dog to pay attention to you and have some fun at the same time.

Tip Number One: The Dog’s Name is Always Positive

Many dog owners use their dog’s name any time they want to get the dog’s attention and they don’t differentiate between praising the dog or scolding it. If the dog is scolded a lot, it may begin to think its name is, “Fido, bad dog!” That negative feeling is going to carry over into all aspects of the relationship and the dog will be less than cooperative.

To change how your dog feels about its name, prepare some treats your dog normally doesn’t get – like leftover cooked chicken from dinner last night or some bits of cheese – and cut them into tiny pieces. With your dog on leash, ask him to sit in front of you, and then say your dog’s name in a happy tone of voice. As soon as your dog looks at you, mark the behavior with a click or verbal praise, and pop a treat in your dog’s mouth.

Practice three or four times and then take a break. Don’t continue until your dog is full of treats and bored. An hour later, practice three or four more times.

Tip Number Two: The Dog Looks at You

Ideally, the dog owner should be able to say the dog’s name in a nice tone of voice – even when the dog is distracted – and have the dog turn to look at the owner.

Becky Schultz, a long time trainer and behavior consultant for Prairie’s Edge Humane Society in Faribault, MN, says, “To get the dog ready for this exercise I ask the dog to sit and then mark (with a click of the clicker or verbal praise followed by a treat) when the dog’s hips touch the floor. A few repetitions of that and we’re ready to teach attention.”

Schultz says when the dog is on leash but not sitting in front (as in Tip Number One), is distracted and looks away she says his name very sweetly. If he looks back to her she marks (with a click or praise) as his head turns towards her. The dog then gets a treat reward. If the dog won’t look at her, she makes a kissy sound or uses a baby name such as, “Puppy, puppy!” and again, when the dog looks at her, she marks the turning of his head towards her with a click or verbal praise, and a treat.

When you try this at home, do it three or four times and then take a break, coming back later to practice it again.

Tip Number Three: The Two-Treat Game

“I teach my dogs to pay attention when I say their name so that I can follow their name with another request such as heel, sit, or come,” says Jan Gribble, of ABC Dog Training LLC in Socorro, NM. She plays the ‘Two-Treat Game’ to help teach attention.

Gribble says, “Put a leash on your dog and drop the leash to the floor. Put your foot on it. This is so your dog can’t wander away.” “

Hold a treat in each hand. Stand upright (don’t lean over your dog) and don’t say anything. Your dog may try several different ways to get the treat in your hand but don’t respond. As soon as your dog looks at you – your face – say his name, smile, praise him verbally and give the treat.” Gribble adds, “Do this several times and alternate the hand that gives the treat so the dog isn’t always expecting it from the same hand.”

Even though in this game you aren’t giving your dog any commands – and in fact aren’t even saying its name to get its attention – the dog learns to look to you for praise and treats. In addition, the dog’s name becomes more positive because you’re pairing it with a smile, praise and treats. Practice three or four times, take a break, and come back to it again later.

Tip Number Four: Making the Two-Treat Game Harder

Gribble says, “When the dog has caught on to The Two-Treat Game you will notice an increase in the number of times your dog looks at you. You are now going to increase the length of time your dog will look at you before being rewarded.”

Follow the steps as listed in Tip Three, but when your dog looks at you, say its name in a happy tone of voice, smile, and count silently to five. Then praise the dog verbally and give the treat. There is no praise or reward if the dog looks away.

Over a two to three week period, in short training sessions, increase the time you ask your dog to watch you to thirty seconds.

Tip Number Five: Walk Away from the Dog

Babette Haggerty, of Babette Haggerty’s Dog Training in New York City, says, “With the dog on leash and sitting, I hold a treat next to my eyes as I tell the dog ‘Watch me.’When the dog returns my look, I praise and give the dog the treat. Gradually, over several days and many short training sessions, the time is increased that the dog is asked to hold the watch me.”

She continues, “When the dog understands the watch me, I then walk almost to the end of the leash, and ask the dog to ‘watch me.’ If the dog looks away, or doesn’t look towards me, I turn and walk the opposite direction that the dog is looking.” Haggerty says she doesn’t turn hard – she doesn’t yank the dog off its feet – she just uses the element of surprise and walks away.

When the dog catches up and looks at her, she praises and rewards the dog.

Tip Number Six: Attention while Following You

Teaching the dog to focus on the owner during a walk in the neighborhood is beneficial when neighborhood dogs are barking behind the fence or kids are riding skateboards down the street. If you plan on participating in any performance sports, having your dog’s attention is vital.

Once your dog knows to look at you when you say its name or ask for a watch me, then begin using the exercise while moving. Sit your dog in front of you, on leash, and say your dog’s name. When your dog looks at you, praise, and back up a few steps. Encourage your dog to follow you while continuing to watch you. Praise again and give a treat. Keep the training sessions short and upbeat.

Tip Number Seven: Attention While Heeling

When you and your dog have been able to do Tip Number Six successfully, you can move on to this one. Begin as you did in the last exercise, backing away from your dog as you ask it to follow you. After backing four or five steps, then turn so you and your dog are walking forward together with the dog by your left side. Praise him for paying attention to you, “Yeah, good to watch me!”

If your dog gets distracted, turn and back away from him again and encourage him to look at you and follow you. You can go back and forth from heel to back away, and then to the heel again.

Tip Number Eight: Catch Up and Pay Attention

For competitive obedience, the dog must keep its focus on the owner. The dog shouldn’t look at what’s happening in the other obedience rings nor at what other people or dogs are doing.

During training exercises, Dawn says, “If my dog looks away while positioned at my side, I quickly walk three steps forward. This ‘walk away’ ends when he catches up to me in the heel position, where I will praise and reward him with a treat for ‘catching’ me.”

This can also be made into a game. Turn and walk away and when your dog catches up, praise him enthusiastically, then turn away in another direction and encourage him to catch up. Vary how you walk: do right turns, left turns, left about turns, right about turns and zig zags.

Tip Number Nine: Adding Distractions

If you’re teaching your dog to focus on you in your house or in the backyard, at some point you’re going to have to add some distractions. Go out in the front yard to practice – with your dog on leash, of course – or go to the local park.

Schult says of her classes, “We gradually add distractions by bouncing balls, squeaking toys, and making funny sounds.” If you have a sound foundation – your dog knows that you are the source of the best praise, treats and petting – then adding some distractions gradually won’t be difficult.

Tip Number Ten: When Food Treats are Too Stimulating

Most trainers recommend using food treats to teaching focus because food is a great motivator. Your dog will watch your hand as you move the treat to your face as you say, “Fido, watch me!” The dog will also enjoy the treat when it’s given as a reward.

However, Haggerty says for some dogs using food can be counterproductive. “Owners need to realize that for some dogs, the use of food is going to get the dog excited and make it more difficult for the dog to focus on the task at hand. When teaching attention, it is best that your dog be in a calm state as opposed to active and rambunctious.” For these dogs, you may wish to try training using a tennis ball or a toy as a lure and reward. Or you may just want to use verbal praise and petting. Every dog is an individual and will react differently so choose something that will motivate your dog.

Tip Number Eleven: Giving Treats on a Random Basis

Although treats are effective training tools, you don’t want to have to have a pocket full of treats all the time. When your dog is focusing on you well, and is able to pay attention with distraction, then you need to start giving the treats on a random basis.

Instead of giving the treat every time the dog looks at you, give it when the dog looks at you immediately when a distraction appears, or as soon as the command leaves your mouth. Reward the best watch me rather than every watch me.

While putting the treats on a random basis, continue to mark a good watch me with either a click of the clicker or verbal praise.

Tip Number Twelve: Watch Me in Social Situations

When you and your dog encounter friends, either dogs or people, or both, your dog should not bark at your friends, try to drag you towards them or worse yet, jump on them. Instead, use your attention command to focus your dog on you.

Jecs says, “Ask your dog first to pay attention to you. When he is focused on you (and no longer trying to drag you towards your friends) reward him with praise and a small treat before allowing him to appropriately greet a friend.”

If your dog is not able to focus on you with the distractions of friends around, practice at home again without distractions until your dog is paying attention again. When you’re ready to add distractions, ask one friend or neighbor to work with you for a few minutes, in your home. Make sure your dog knows that all the good stuff – treats, praise and petting – comes from you and not your neighbor!

Continue to Build These Skills

Teaching your dog to pay attention to you is not just a useful skill but also a very important one. When your dog is paying attention to you, he’s not jumping on your friend, sniffing another dog, or stealing the neighbor’s son’s ice cream cone. In addition, when your dog is focused on you, you can tell him what you want to do next and he can do it. After all, he was paying attention! Schultz says of her students, “Although sometimes students don’t immediately understand the value of this exercise, once their dog learns it, they find it to be one of the most valuable behaviors which they use almost every day.”

The Top Twelve Training and Behavior Books

More than 100 dog trainers, behaviorists and behavioral consultants were asked to list their favorite dog training and behavior books. The instructions were to think of both old and new books; books they enjoyed the most; learned the most from; referred back to for information; and suggested to their clients.

1. “The Other End of the Leash” Patricia McConnell (Ballantine Books, 2003)
2. “The Culture Clash” Jean Donaldson (James & Kenneth, 1996)
3. “Puppy Love” Liz Palika (Howell Book House/Wiley & Sons, 2009)
4. “Canine Body Language” Brenda Aloff (DogWise Publishing, 2005)
5. “Don’t Shoot the Dog” Karen Pryor (Ringpress Books, 3rd edition 2002)
6. “Surviving Your Dog’s Adolescence” Carol Lea Benjamin (Howell Book House, 1993)
7. “The Rosetta Bone” Cheryl Smith (Howell Book House, 2004)
8. “Mother Knows Best” Carol Lea Benjamin (Howell Book House, 1985)
9. “Bones Would Rain from the Sky” Suzanne Clothier (Grand Central Publishing, 2005)
10. “Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Guide” Barbara Handelman (Woof and Word Press, 2008)
11. “Reaching the Animal Mind” Karen Pryor (Scribner, 2009)
12. “Living with Kids and Dogs” Colleen Pelar (C & R Publishing, 2005)

Originally published in Dog World magazine, July 2010