Get Your Dog’s Attention Anywhere!
Do you have dreams of having a dog who can give you rock-solid focus? Do you have a dog that may do well with their training in familiar places, but as soon as you take them somewhere new it’s like you don’t exist anymore? Or, are you getting a new puppy and you’re wondering what kind of foundational training you should be doing with them to start out on the right foot? Well, a good place to start for all these scenarios is to build solid attention and focus skills with your dog or puppy!
Building focus and attention with your dog is a foundational skill that you can build other rock-solid behaviors on top of. It’s not very useful for your dog to know dozens of skills and behaviors if they’re not able to give you enough attention to do them while out in real-life settings when you really need them. Whether you have an adult dog you’ve lived with for years or a brand new puppy, all can benefit from playing these attention-building games:
Putting Attention on Cue- “The Name Game”
Teaching your dog to pay attention to you on cue can be incredibly useful in real-world applications. It’s a great precursor to asking for behavior, so you know your dog hears you and is paying attention when you ask. For example, if your dog is off-leash or on a long line and you need to call them back to you, giving their “attention” cue before recalling them will make sure that they are listening and you won’t have to call after them several times before they realize you’re talking to them. Being able to get your dog’s attention on cue is also a great way to help dogs who are overly distracted or reactive to specific triggers when out and about. As an example, say your dog reacts to people riding on bicycles. While out walking at the park you can step off the path and ask your dog for some repetitions of attention on cue as a bicyclist passes by to keep them under their threshold. In any case, we need to do foundational training sessions with our dogs like “The Name Game” in order to teach them that giving us attention when we ask pays off!
As with teaching any new skill or behavior, start your training sessions in a quiet place inside the house so that no distractions are pulling your dog away from learning. Begin by tossing a treat onto the floor for your dog to eat. Then, you’re going to wait for them to look up at you again, where you will mark the behavior with a clicker or marker word (whichever you use) and toss another piece of food on the floor. In the beginning stages, especially with dogs who are not naturally very handler-focused, you may have to wait your dog out for a good bit before they catch on that looking up at you is what will earn them another piece of food. Repeat this process of tossing food, letting your dog eat it, then marking when they look back at you until your dog is reliably eating the food and quickly looking up at you expectantly for the next repetition.
Once your dog understands that looking up at you and giving eye contact is what is earning them the food, you can start putting the behavior on the cue of your choice. This is up to you, some people choose to use their dog’s name itself as the cue, or you can use something like “look” or “watch me.” Just make sure you pick one cue word and stick to it! Now, you’re going to do the same exercise as before, except you’re going to say your cue word the moment that your dog makes eye contact with you in every repetition. Like before, do several repetitions of this so that your dog solidly builds the association that the cue word=make eye contact with you.
Once your dog offers you eye contact when you give the cue word, you will know that you have successfully taught your dog to give you attention on cue! From here, you can start to “proof” the behavior by building up to more distracting environments. From the house, try asking for attention on cue in the backyard or on their normal walking route around the neighborhood when there isn’t much going on around you. Once they can give you attention in mildly distracting environments, practice this game in more busy areas like a local park, a new hiking trail, restaurant patio, etc. If you can get eye contact from your dog no matter how challenging the environment, you’ve built a solid “attention on cue” behavior!
Capturing Attention- Less Micromanaging For You!
Having to constantly ask your dog for attention when you are out with your dog may seem a bit tedious and repetitive. So, we should also make sure that we create positive associations with giving us focus and attention even when we don’t ask for it! To do this, you will need to organically “capture” eye contact from your dog when they offer it without being asked. When we reinforce this offered behavior, we increase the likelihood of them continuing to do it in the future. Having a dog who is inclined to check in with you even without asking can help build the association that you are valuable to pay attention to even when other exciting things are going on around them and even when you aren’t specifically asking for the behavior. It helps them learn to do it naturally!
Just like in the last game, you’re going to start by “capturing” attention when around the house in a less distracting environment. To start, plant your feet right in front of your dog and wait for them to look up at you. From there, you’ll mark with your clicker or marker word and drop a piece of food on the ground. Continue to do a few repetitions of this, again until your dog associates looking at you=a cookie falls from the sky. Any time your dog offers you eye contact without you asking, try to have food on hand to reward them with- setting up cookie jars or stations around the house with shelf-stable food can be helpful for these situations! Just like in the last exercise, once you have reliable and offered attention without asking while around the house, start to slowly increase the level of distractions and continue to mark and reward any offered attention in other environments as well.
Adding Excitement- The Cookie Toss Game
This game is similar to “The Name Game” but just adds a bit more energy. This is a fantastic game to play outside in an enclosed yard, on a long line, or somewhere that you have some space to work with. It’s also a great exercise to keep puppies engaged with learning to give you focus, as they have a short attention span and are more likely to engage with you if you are fun and exciting!
Toss a piece of food on the ground near your dog and allow them to find it- this can be done in grassy areas where your dog will need to sniff the food out. Once they eat the food, you’re going to wait them out like in previous exercises until they offer you eye contact. It will be tempting to call them or try to get their attention, but it’s best to be patient and let them offer the behavior on their own. As soon as your dog turns and looks back at you, mark with the clicker or marker word and toss another cookie nearby for them to find.
Once your dog catches on to the game, you can start to toss the cookies farther away or off to the side/behind them to add difficulty and really get them interested in sniffing the cookie out. Try a few repetitions of this, then pair tossing the cookie with walking or jogging a few steps away from your dog so that they have to come running to you to “catch” your next cookie being tossed in the grass. This can help build some energy into the game and keeps your dog engaged if they have a short attention span or are a more active, playful type.
Practicing these foundational attention-building games with your dog regularly can help immensely with getting the level of focus you need to train your dog in real-life scenarios. The more you build a positive association with giving you eye contact and attention through food and play, the more often your dog is going to feel inclined to pay attention to you. With dogs, we see more of the behaviors that we reinforce, and when we become the most rewarding and interesting thing in the environment, our dogs will be more inclined to do what we ask even around triggers and distractions!