Do you know what one of the most important and underrated aspects of positive dog training is?
Learning how to get your dog's attention.
Think about it this way.
How will you train you dog using only positive methods, if your dog does not pay any attention to you at all?
The truth is that the attention we need to train our dog using positive training methods does not come without work.
Which is why in this post you will discover how to get your dog's attention as well as three easy and fun exercises to train this behavior.
How To Get Your Dog's Attention: Teaching Your Dog to be a Good Student
Training for your dog's attention teaches them to be a good student, which is someone who sits quietly and waits to be instructed. It is so much easier to teach a dog everything else once this foundation is in place.
Later in this post, you will see how two of my favorite attention exercises revolve around paying attention and waiting to be instructed, i.e. being a good student.
Training for your dog's attention is among the core principles in positive reinforcement training, and a necessity to make your dog training successful. In my opinion, training your dog to pay attention to you is one of the fundamentals that nearly all dog training experts underemphasize.
Once you have read this post, you will know the correct mindset and actual training exercises you need to train your dog to pay attention to you – so that you can get the happy, well-trained and trusting new family member you’ve always dreamed of.
How Do You Know If You Have Your Dog's Attention?
The easiest way to see that your dog is paying attention to you is by observing if it’s looking at you constantly and following everything you do closely.
Once you have an attentive dog this will be very obvious, especially to other family members or friends. They will mention how your dog constantly seems to follow you around and work for your attention.
If your dog is anything like mine, you’ll experience this when it’s feeding 🙂
However, some dogs are discrete. It seems like they couldn't be bothered less about where you are or what you are doing, but the moment you disappear from sight, they are suddenly right behind you.
Mine can even be upstairs when I’m working downstairs, but the moment I stop writing on my computer they come down so that I do not slip away without them.
To put it shortly; attention is when your dog is aware of your movements and what you are doing at any time of the day.
Is Having Your Dog’s Attention Overrated?
You might wonder if all this talk about attention is overrated - typically “old school” trainers think it is.
They believe that they get the same result - or better - by telling the dog to pay attention when they want it to. And if the dog does not listen, they will force it to pay attention.
But just look at your dog, when it has you in focus because it wants to instead of because it has to, I’m telling you, you can see that it’ll do anything to please you.
Once you get to this stage the rest of your training will be a much better experience, and that is precisely why you need to focus on training your dog to pay attention to you.
Do Not Take Your Dog’s Attention For Granted
In my experience we take so much for granted - too much, as a matter of fact.
When the dog first comes to us, it relies on us completely. We are at the center of its attention every minute of the day.
But this is only for the first few weeks, because as the dog develops its world grows bigger, and all the new stuff it encounters becomes interesting – maybe even more interesting than you.
This is bad news for your relationship.
There should be nothing more interesting than you in the long run. If you can manage to stay at the center of your dog's attention and improve your bond with your dog, everything you want of your dog will become so much easier.
So how do we accomplish this?
We train… every day, all year.
We make it a habit, not only for us, but also for our fantastic dog. What we train is not just the ordinary sit, come, down – no. Before, under and after this comes training the dog to pay attention to you.
Alright, so now we understand what it means to have your dog’s attention and why having your dog’s attention is so important. Let us move into the basic framework for teaching attention and a few simple exercises you can do to ensure your dog is always paying attention to you.
Your Dog Knows When You Are Not Focused
Ok, so first things first: When training your dog to pay attention to you, you have got to be there - as in really be present with your dog; remember your dog can feel you! It knows when you’re sad, when you’re happy, and it most certainly knows when you are lying and when you are not.
Therefore, be sure you’re present throughout the relatively short time you train your dog.
The framework for teaching your dog to pay attention is extremely simple. You reward your dog when it pays attention to you. You can reward your dog in many ways; with treats, praise, and even with happiness.
In order to help you understand how exactly rewarding your dog for paying attention to you looks, I have listed my three favorite ways to train my dogs to pay attention to me.
Dog Attention Exercise #1 - Eye Contact
The first exercise is called eye contact, and this is the exercise that teaches your dog to sit quietly and pay attention to the teacher. In order to do this exercise, you grab some treats and then sit beside your dog, waiting for them to look at you. This requires a bit of patience the first time you train this, but hang in there – it’s worth the wait!
At the very moment your dog lifts its eyes to yours, you praise them warmly (or use your clicker) and reward it with its favorite treat.
Then you keep still and wait for it to happen again, and you keep on doing this until your dog understands that looking in your eyes/at your face brings good things - and a happy you 🙂
See this video for a more thorough explanation of this exercise:
Dog Attention Exercise #2 - Impulse Control
This exercise is called impulse control, and it is really more of a concept that it is an actual exercise, because there are so many variations of it.
When your dog knows that it’s supposed to look at you, you can use this endlessly in everything you do.
For instance, you can “drop” something from the kitchen table and if your dog tries to grab it, you can cover it with your foot.
When your dog then sits and - at some point - looks at you, you can praise it and tell it to get it. Again, your dog learns that it pays off to look at you before doing what it wants, and in this way every good thing your dog wants and gets can be channeled through you. In your dog's eyes, you are then the origin of it all. Clever, yes? 🙂
See this video below for instructions on how to use this when feeding your dog:
Dog Attention Exercise #3 - Hand Targeting
The attention from your dog is also desirable when something happens that might scare or upset them. If you do nothing, your dog will grow more and more scared or upset, and if it cannot run, it will probably attack instead.
This is natural, but nevertheless not desirable. So, instead of allowing this behavior to unfold, you can train attention in order to be able to get in contact with your dog, even in times like that.
To practice this contact on demand, you can put your hand in front of your dog, the palm of your hand right in front of your dog’s nose. Do not say anything, as it is good for your dog to use its brain (this also goes for us humans…). Wait for your dog to touch the palm of your hand.
The moment it happens you reward your dog – at first by praising it (or by clicking), and afterwards by giving a treat. Now you do it again, and every time your dog touches the palm of your hand, you reward it. In time, your dog will know that when your hand is down, it’s a signal for it to touch, and good things will happen – you have a connection!
As long as your dog is focusing on you, it cannot focus on whatever might disturb it, and you’re on your way to avoiding a conflict or protecting your dog from being scared or disturbed, and your dog will love you for it.
See this video below for video instructions of this exercise as well as even more interesting ways to use hand targeting in your dog training:
As you can see from the videos above, treats are used often as a reward for the behavior we want to encourage. For this reason, I usually retain 50% of my dog's rations, which I will distribute evenly throughout the day in training sessions like this.
If I did not retain these rations, the dog would probably lose motivation with food, or if the dog is very responsive to food, then it would end up getting very overweight. See this article on Pet MD for more information on how much a dog should eat.
To sum it all up, the fundamental and therefore most important principle in positive dog training is attention; this includes of course your attention to your dog and the training, but most of all, your dog’s attention to you at all times.
Sadly, this is also what nearly all dog training experts underemphasize, but do not make the same mistake; remember this one piece of advice and the rest of your dog training will become much easier and more worthwhile
Good luck with your training!