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May 31 2015

Attention, Please!

By Kathy Diamond Davis
Author and Trainer

Life is full of distractions, especially for a puppy or dog! When you have a dog who won’t pay attention to you while on walks or at the park, or even at home, an obedience class is definitely in order. Try your nearest obedience training clubs, which have classes taught by knowledgeable and dedicated volunteers. These classes are often the best deals in town. You can find the clubs nearest you on the AKC website, where they are listed by state.

Besides club classes, there may be other training businesses in your area. Dog trainers are not licensed, and you certainly don’t want to take your dog to a situation that would cause harm. Your veterinarian may be able to recommend reputable classes. A veterinary behavior specialist in the area would be an excellent expert to ask about the reliable professional trainers near you.

Following are instructions on how to get and keep your dog’s attention around distractions such as other dogs.

Dog Attention, Control around Other Dogs

For handling your dog around other dogs, an excellent method comes from Linda O’Hare Newsome. This moving exercise works better than standing still. You teach the dog to give you eye contact when you say the dog’s name. Very soon, you can get and hold the dog’s attention anytime you wish. With attention–eye contact and movement–on you, the dog simply has no ability to pay attention to anything else at the same time.

Here’s how you do it.

  1. Have treats on your person (later you may use a toy instead, but it helps to start with tiny, tempting treats, lots of tiny pieces), but keep them out of the dog’s sight. To initiate the attention sequence, say “[Dog’s Name]!” and YOU MOVE ABRUPTLY away. If you want to say “Heel” or “Come” or “Front” or “By Me,” that’s fine too. The main thing is, say the name–this is going to become the word on which the dog will learn to look at you–then MOVE.
  2. When the dog moves with you, quickly PRAISE. This is where you would use a clicker if you wish to use that method, but a word of praise is fine, too. Then instantly whip out a treat and give it. Do not show the treats until you are ready to give one. This prevents the treat from becoming, in the dog’s mind, an actual part of the command–or a bribe. Each time you give a treat, align it between the dog’s eyes and yours. You want eye contact with that treat. Soon you will find the dog seeking your eye contact. Always praise that action, and it’s fine to give the dog a “free” treat for doing it.
  3. Okay, you’re not done. When you do this sequence, always do at least 3 to 5 in a row. That means each time you 1) say the name, 2) move, 3) praise, 4) whip out a treat, and 5) give it. This doesn’t necessarily take up a bunch of space, since you want it all to happen very fast. The movement is not over a great distance. You can move one direction the first time, back the other way the second time, etc. But always do at least 3 to 5 repetitions in a row before you release the dog’s attention. This is what teaches a dog to SUSTAIN that attention on you until you release it.
  4. Practice this exercise everywhere, including at obedience class. You can do this with a toy, especially once you have taught it to the dog. But don’t rush to get away from the food. Food is the easiest thing to deliver with this split-second timing, and will greatly help you in establishing the pattern of attention.
  5. By always praising before you give the treat, you are also building up your praise in the dog’s mind. This will allow you later to praise at that correct moment, and be able to deliver the treat (or toy) a bit later (when you have to walk across the room to get one, for example) while the praise maintains the continuity in the dog’s mind between the action and the reward.

This ability to get the dog’s attention any time you want it will serve you when working around other dogs. Not only will you be able to control your dog, but if you are consistent about bringing your dog’s attention to you and away from other dogs at the first sign of getting too interested, you will find that the sight of another dog will start causing yours to look at you! Praise this, of course!

Many people believe that socializing a dog with other dogs is for the goal of creating a dog who can just play with any dog, anywhere, anytime. This is not a realistic goal for many dogs, especially after maturity. A much more reasonable goal is to teach your dog to pay attention to you when working around other dogs, and to ignore them. You’ll notice at dog shows that this is how the experienced handlers manage their dogs. It’s not like a big dog park with all the dogs playing together.

The attention exercise is not extremely time-consuming. Just take a few moments and do it in every location where you go together. It’s surprising how quickly it becomes habit for the dog to look at you when you say his or her name–and equally habit for you to positively reinforce this response every time. People will comment on how much your dog loves you and the obvious bond between the two of you–and they’ll be right!

Date Published: 7/10/2001
Date Reviewed/Revised: 1/14/2007

Kathy Diamond Davis is the author of the book Therapy Dogs: Training Your Dog to Reach Others. Should the training articles available here or elsewhere not be effective, contact your veterinarian. Veterinarians not specializing in behavior can eliminate medical causes of behavior problems. If no medical cause is found, your veterinarian can refer you to a colleague who specializes in behavior or a local behaviorist.

Copyright 2007 – 2010 by Kathy Diamond Davis. Used with permission. All rights reserved.

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