Get your dog to focus on YOU!

© Stacy Braslau-Schneck, CPDT

Does your dog lose all focus on you in a training

class?  Does she forget you exist when you go to the dog park?  Is

she more interested in meeting other dogs or other people than in paying attention

to you?  Spend a few minutes each day for a week to build a solid foundation

of attention.  

If you take the time to do these exercises you will

greatly improve your dog’s ability to focus on you and respond to your commands

in a class situation or other distractions, including being around other dogs.

Day One

Pick a marker word to use as a clicker.  The

marker will mark the moment the dog achieves the goal you’ve set, and promises

the dog a great reward.  You can of course use a clicker but you will be

doing a lot of opportunistic training, and it will be helpful to have a word

or sound like “Yes!” or “Good!” to have handy.  Remember,

the marker is not in itself praise (you’ll want to praise your dog, too!), but

it is the sound of payoff to your dog.

Charge up your marker by saying it and immediately

after giving the dog a treat.  Make sure that the marker comes first, and

then the treat.

Find a non-distracting environment – your home kitchen

or living room (not the dog park or class room!).  Watch your dog’s eyes. 

Whenever your dog looks at you, click or say your marker word, and give your

dog a treat.  Don’t do anything special to get your dog’s attention – just

wait for it and capture it.  Do this throughout the day.

In addition to noticing your dog’s attention to

you throughout the day, do some rapid rounds of rewarding eye contact. 

For one minute, click or mark and treat every time your dog looks at you – as

many times as you possibly can in one minute.  Repeat this a few times.  

Now play “The Eye Contact Game”: hold some treats in your hand and

hold your hand out to one side.  Don’t say anything to get your dog’s attention;

just wait patiently while your dog stares at the treats to tries to get them

(just hold your hand closed).  The moment the dog tears his eyes off of

the hand with the treats and looks at your face instead, click and treat!

By the end of this day, you should have marked and

rewarded your dog for looking at you one hundred times or more!

Day Two

If you can predict that your dog will look at you,

say your dog’s name first.  When she looks at you, click or mark and treat.

If you guessed wrong, and your dog didn’t look at you after you’ve said

her name, you’ve set yourself back a tiny step.  Don’t assume that the

dog understands the relatively sophisticated concept of an individual’s name. 

You will be teaching the dog that hearing her name is an opportunity to get

a reward if she chooses the right action – looking at you.

If she didn’t look at you, immediately go back to

rewarding her for looking at you, as many times as you can in a minute. 

Now you can probably be better at predicting when the next eye contact will

come – say the dog’s name first.

Continue to notice any time your dog looks at you

during the day.  Mark and reward each time.

Try to have 100 successful sequences of “Dog’s

Name” + look at you + mark & treat.

Day Three

Go to a place that is interesting and potential

distracting for your dog – a dog park, a pet store.  Do NOT go in

yet!  Move away from where the interesting action is – far enough that

the dog is no longer entirely focused on the action.  Stop some distance

away – up to a block away – and wait.  Wait for your dog to look at you. 

When she does, mark it, treat it, and celebrate!  Is she still looking

at you?  Mark and treat it again.  Do your one-minute round of rewarding

eye-contact.  If it’s predictable, put the dog’s name on it. 

Why are you waiting and not trying to get the dog’s

attention?  Because you want the dog to be able to look at you on her own,

without you having to do all the work up front.  Patience will pay off!

For safety’s sake, and for control, your dog should

be on leash.  But your goal is to get the dog to look at you even when

there is no leash, so try not to use the leash to get her attention.  You

want the cue to look at you to be her name, not a tug on her collar.  If

you have a hard time handling leash, clicker, and treats, or keeping your hands

from tugging, drop the leash to the ground and step on the handle.

Throughout the day, make sure that you mark and

reward each time your dog looks at you.

Day Four

Go back to your exciting place and go to the distance

you were successful at before.  Do one minute of rewarding attention. 

Are you rewarding as many sequences of the dog looking at you and you clicking

and treating as you could at home, with fewer distractions around?  If

so, move a few feet closer to the interesting action, and do another minute

of rewards.  When you can predict that the dog will look at you, say her

name just before she does.

Every time you say the dog’s name and she looks

at you and you reward her, you’re making headway, moving forward towards your

goal, gaining points for your team!  Every time you guess wrong and say

the dog’s name but she doesn’t look at you, you’re losing ground, losing points. 

Dogs don’t learn commands the way we do.  Studies show that dogs need to

hear a command paired with the action that is rewarded 30-40 times before they

make a strong association between the command (cue) and the action that will

get them the reward.

If another dog or other distracting thing comes

too close to you for your dog to ignore, either wait until it’s past again and

the dog turns her attention back to you, or move a few feet away, backwards.

In addition to these exercises, be sure to mark

and reward your dog for looking at you at any time during the day.

Day Five

Go back again, do a one-minute round of rewarding

attention at the place you were successful at before, and continue moving closer

a few feet.  Again, add the dog’s name if you can, and move calmly away

from distractions if they get too overwhelming. 

Continue to mark and reward your dog for looking

at you at any time during the day.

Day Six

Reward your dog for paying attention to you at a

distance from the distractions.  Move a little closer, allow your dog to

notice the distraction, and immediately call her name and move backwards excitedly. 

As soon as she turns towards you, click and treat.  Reward her several

more times for looking at you at that distance from the distraction.  

Praise her, and start to move back towards the distraction.  Allow her

to notice the distraction and again call her to you while moving backwards. 

Repeat this as many times as you can in five minutes.

Please note that you should not use someone else

calling her name as a distraction!

Day Seven

Go to your distracting place.  Charge up her

attention by rewarding it at a distance from the distractions.  Move closer

to the distractions, allow her to become interested in them for a moment, then

call her name and move backwards away from the distractions. 


You’ve now spent a few minutes each day building
up a history of rewarding your dog for looking at you, even around some attractive
distractions.  If you’ve managed to mark and reward your dog’s attention
over 100 times each day, you’ll be nearing 1000 successes already!  This
is the foundation for good attention.   You may need to continue this
training.  Be sure that you continue to reward your dog for paying attention
to you in the situations where it’s important to you – such as in class, at
the dog park, while walking through crowds, etc. 


Helix Fairweather’s description of the Eye

Contact Game; Dani Weinberg’s description.

All material copyright Stacy Braslau-Schneck. Reprints for non-commercial use, and with the author’s permission only.

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