How To: Have an attentive dog

I get commented a lot on how attentive my dogs are, how much they watch me. Sometimes the comments are then followed by "oh, you must have a treat on you" as if this explains everything. And it's true. Most of the time I do have a treat (or at least kibble) on me if I'm out in public with my dogs. I don't see this as a crutch but as a way to reward my dogs for behavior that I like. As their training progresses they have to work harder to get a reward, but the possibility of a reward is always there for them. I am always hurt when I hear that clause to their "good dog" comment even though I know the person isn't trying to insult me. Since all of my readers are, obviously, dog lovers you know that just having treats on you does not magically transform any dog to a good citizen, at least for longer then 5 seconds! Plus, you need to have a reward that the dog actually wants at that moment, and/or teach the dog that he can gain what he really wants by listening to you. Vito won't take any treats when he is overstimulated (ball in hand, oh no!) so I have been working with him below threshold and have also been teaching Vito that he can earn the ball if he comes to me first. Or for dogs who are distracted by dogs/squirrels/a falling leaf, teach them that you can provide this reward if they tune into you.

So my blog post today is on attention. Besides the people who just dismiss me and my dogs once they know I have treats on me, some are genuinely interested in how they can get their dogs to listen to them. I highly believe that the number one thing you need to teach your dog is eye contact. You can't teach ANYTHING if your dog won't even look at you. So if your plan was to work on heelwork, or even a cool new trick, you have to throw that plan out the window and start a new one if your dog's eyes are everywhere but on you. The new lesson plan for that session is eye contact. Seriously. Here is the very first lecture/how to/rant of my blog!

How to Start, Game One
Do you think that your dog has really good attention at home and that your problems just show up out in public? Well I hope that's true, but let's just do a little test first. Show your dog some really good treats, hold them right to your dog's nose. Now move your hand with the treats out to the side of your body and hold them out parallel to you. Wait. Your dog is very likely staring at those treats and drooling. Say your dog's name ONCE (or use his "watch me cue"), does your dog turn your head to look at you? How long will your dog make eye contact before staring at those treats again? If your dog successfully looks into your eyes and ignores the food distraction, congratulations!!! If not, start training eye contact and start this work at home.

Basically, the game described above is how I start with all puppies. I don't ever bring a treat to my forehead since 1) you have to fade it or end up with a dog who only stares at you if you have a cookie plastered to your head and 2) I'm teaching my dog to stare at the "distraction" he wants, instead of teaching him from the start to look away from it. So show your dog treats, hold them out to the side, say his name, and wait. don't make any other noise. I don't care if your dog stares at those treats for 5 minutes, you will wait. As soon as your dog makes a glimmer of eye contact, click and give your dog the treat that is held out. Once your dog understands that staring a treat does not make it fall into his mouth, make this game harder by:

1. Lengthen the time your dog must look at you before you reward him
2. Start moving your hand with the treats up and down, in circles, etc.
3. Add treats in your second hand and hold that out too.
4. Try with really really good treats!
5. Try this game with his favorite toy.
6. Try holding your dog's food dish out to the side!

Oh, and I personally only use my dog's name as their cue to look at me. I don't use the word "watch me" since I feel it's redunant to their name. Plus I do a lot of voluntarily eye contact, game 2, so I just don't find it neccessary. But go right ahead if you want to!

Catch and Release, Game 2
This is basically the Premack Principle, or in simple terms it's rewarding a behavior your dog doesn't do that often with a behavior he loves to do. The behavior we're looking for is eye contact and the rewarding behavior can be anything else but it should be a behavior (like sniffing, chasing squirrels, greeting another person/dog...). Unless i specifically know what it is my dog wants at that moment, I usually just give a general release like "ok!" to let my dog know he's free to do whatever he wants.

Start outside in your backyard with treats ready and your dog on leash (a longer leash works best, ~10ft). I do a lot of training off leash, but at this point I want to control the access to the rewards. I am teaching my dog that he can choose when to train and when to go off on his own, but that I am the one providing access to both rewards. So you and your dog are standing in the backyard on leash, and you are in one spot of the yard. If your dog looks at you, click/treat and then immediately (as he is still chewing) release your dog. Follow your dog wherever he wants to go for a short time (5-15sec) and remember that you're not working on walking skills so run with your dog if you have to but it's your job to keep the leash loose at this point). After a short time of freedom, stop moving again and wait for eye contact. Repeat the process of rewarding eye contact and releasing your dog. Do this until you find your dog just staring at you even when you release him. Continue to click/treat and release a few more times, but basically you are just conintually rewarding this eye contact every 5 seconds. Maybe lengthen the time your dog needs to look at you to 10 seconds or so before getting a treat.

Do this for several more sessions in your backyard. Try to time how long it takes for your dog to really start playing the game and stop going off to sniff. Once you're happy with that amount of time, take this game on the road. Go to a parking lot, baseball field, or any place else you can think of. Try not to have any other distractions besides sniffing (like no kids running or dogs playing) until your dog is a master.

Remember how I said the reward could be any behavior? Well if you progress to doing this game in front of a tree of squirrels, click the eye contact and then RUN with your dog to that tree of squirells! He may not even want a treat at this point, but the running after (the long gone) squirrels is a reward enough. Or if your dog want to say hi to a person, click the eye contact and then run to the person. Once you have good attention from your dog you can start training other behaviors (like walking nicely to the person) but right now I wouldn't worry about it. Train one thing at a time.

My example:
My dogs have great attention, but they're not pefect :P Whenever I go to an obedience trial, or really anywhere new, I always start with eye contact and then release Lance with an "ok, go sniff!" Lance can do whatever he wants for about 5 seconds, I even follow him as he walks, and then I stop moving, say his name once, and then wait. I refuse to budge or say anything else until Lance looks at me. Eye contact earns a click/treat and the release "ok, go sniff!" Whenever Lance looks at me in this new place, he gets a click/treat, whether I asked for it or not. I don't train anything else until I find that Lance is staring at me, even when I release him. Then the warm up beings :)

You Don't Always Get What You Want, Game 3
Don't be in too much of a rush to get to this game. Dogs really need to learn HOW to get what they want (by listening to you) before you start teaching them the realities of life! If you already have a "leave it" taught this is basically the same, but easier and harder at the same time. I do formally teach my dogs "leave it" but I also want it to be automatic whenever we are out in public. I don't want to have to tell my dog's "leave it" in public since I may not even see what it is that they want. Teach them "leave it" step by step first though and this game will go easier since they already know the behavior.

Put a treat down on the floor about 15ft away from your dog (adjust if needed). This is just Game 1, but now the treat is on the floor instead of in your hand Just stand in one spot and click/treat eye contact with a different treat. Gradually move closer but keep your dog successful. You want your dog learning to ignore what is on the floor and focus in on you instead. This time though, your dog won't be getting whatever object is out there. Overal several sessions, work on distance until you can easily walk your dog past and around the object without issue. Then repeat this work with a toy. Next repeat it with a person, then a dog, etc! You will essentially be teaching your dog automatic eye contact amongst distractions.

Reward Lots, Suggestion 4:
Ok this isn't really a "game." But basically if you want your dog to be attentive to you, then be attentive to him and tell him that you like what he's doing! That's why I carry kibble when I'm out in public with my dogs. I want to be able to capture eye contact and reward it. In Vito's classes, I am always giving him a treat when Vito's looking at me and being calm. They're not free treats, Vito's earning them by being attentive. When he was a wee lad, Vito got treats every 30seconds. Now he gets a treat every few minutes. But Vito has a job to do in between exercises and he knows it. I don't care if his eyes are drilling into my skull, but I do care that Vito isn't pulling towards another dog or completely ignoring me. In these situations, I don't require direct eye contact but calm, lying down at my side will do. Sometimes I surprise Vito and whip out a tuggy toy when he's being "good" and I play a game while the instructor is talking. But the point is that I am always attentive to my dog if I am asking him to be attentive to me. And I reward lots in the beginning! It's so easy to fade out the treats once attention becomes a default behavior!

Good luck :) End of rant.

Edit: See this additional post on teaching your dog to focus around food

Mango  – ( November 5, 2009 at 5:04 AM )  

My stupid pee-wee brother has to do all of those things. He is a total suck up and can actually leave a hot dog on the floor and make puppy eyes at momma. That idiot will even work for praise. Can you believe it? I am not so easily duped.


P.S. Momma says thanks for the training tips because she is working most hard on my manners. Sigh. Why do I have to be well behaved after over four years of doing whatever I want?

achieve1dream  – ( November 5, 2009 at 7:48 AM )  

Hey great post!! So much helpful advice! I will definitely try to work on this soon with Jackal. Would have been nice the day we went to the park. :)

Oh and I agree there is nothing wrong with treats. You aren't carrying treats to bribe the dog, you're carrying them to reward the dog. Next time someone says that to you ask them if they would continue to go to work if they were never getting another paycheck ever again. That will be a wake up call for a lot of people. How dumb do they think dogs are??

Anyway thanks for the training suggestions. :)

Ninso  – ( November 5, 2009 at 9:10 AM )  

Great suggestions! This is something we've worked on a lot, but it could use more work. Especially in public. And I love the part about "if you want your dog to be attentive to you, be attentive to him." It bugs me in class when between exercises people totally disconnect from their dogs. Then they wonder why their dogs disconnect from them.

ClassyChassy  – ( November 5, 2009 at 10:57 AM )  

A very good post today - enjoyed reading it. There is a lot to it, a lot to digest!

Kathie R  – ( November 6, 2009 at 3:26 PM )  

Excellent post! It's great to be reminded of the importance of eye contact and attention. Sometimes I move on to other skills and forget to keep the basics polished. That's going to be my winter project - improving attention :) Thanks for posting!

Honey the Great Dane  – ( November 10, 2009 at 8:36 PM )  

Great post! Excellent training tips - thanks so much! Am going to try some of these with Honey - not that I really have an attention problem with her but I never formally taught her the "Watch" command and I have just decided that I would like to just for photographs - teach her to look into the camera until do you think I could do this, instead of getting her attention on my face (coz my eyes & face will probably be covered by the camera and even if I use a digital screen, I want her looking at the camera, not me...)


Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( November 10, 2009 at 9:40 PM )  

hmm, well it would probabally be the same as the first game I have listed, but the opposite. Camera held out to side, but click looking at the camera instead of you.

Or maybe teach Honey to stare at your index finger, and then hold that finger up as you take her picture.

Or maybe you could do it through teach her to "mark" like in field work or advanced obedience exercises (Lance looks where I hold my hand for go outs and the directed retrieves). I start teach this by having a treat out, telling "look" and then click/treat the look to the treat. you would then switch this to a camera? the problem I could see though is that you will be at the object instead of at her side...hmmm

Maybe targeting? teach her to target a post it note with her nose, and then gradually just teach her to look at the post it. put post it on camera?

Anonymous  –   – ( August 11, 2012 at 8:26 PM )  

great article!!!

I shall be working hard at this.

Game 2 & 3 question.
What do I do when my dog weighs 50kg, and if he wants to get to something it is hard to stop him since he is quite strong, should I use something like a gentle leader, though once he is better behaved would he only be like that if the gentle leader was on, as on a collar or harness if he wants to go somewhere he can physically pull me.

Any ideas

Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( August 11, 2012 at 9:25 PM )  

Ideally you should be gradually upping distractions so that the dog already knows "the game" well enough that he can easily make the decision to look at you instead of pulling. Starting in the home, then the backyard, and then purposeful distractions at a far distance can make it easy to control even the biggest dogs. Of course that's not always possible in real life!

In situations where I know my dog is not ready it's perfectly fine to use a gentle leader or a no-pull harness. In my opinion, the problem with using a tool (even too much reliance on the leash!) is that it's hard to fade. Make sure that you work up slowly so that the dog doesn't need to know he's on leash, or on a gentle leader, etc. and it's easier to get rid of.

Anonymous  –   – ( August 13, 2012 at 7:48 PM )  

thanks for the advice, I shall work on this heaps, I enjoy training so hopefully I get there. My eventual goal is to train him up to be a therapy dog using all positive techniques without harsh adversives. Im really excited I've found this article real helpful, I was beginning to think I'd get nowhere using all positive training. (I used to use adversives, choke chain and my dog was perfect but too robot like and I could tell he didn't enjoy it and hated using it so stopped after a couple weeks, his much happier now but not the most obedient but we'll get there)

At the moment I take him on walks on the gentle leader and usually once his tired on the way back, take it off and just use his collar his only 16months old.

ps I watched your videos of Lance amazing work, there a big hit with everyone I show, puts a smile on everyones face thats my dog, the lab, the rottie is my cousins im attempting to train as much as possible


Laura, Lance, and Vito  – ( August 14, 2012 at 6:20 PM )  

That's great Stefan! They sure look cute! 16 months is still pretty young so I'm sure you'll reach your goals.

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