“I can’t get my dog to listen to me!” I frequently hear this from frustrated dog owners. They are frustrated that their dog seems to be interested in anything and everything but them. I’m sure we have all experienced those moments when we ask our dog to “sit” or “come” and we get no response. You can almost see the words bouncing harmlessly (and ineffectively) off of their head. It’s frustrating but it isn’t something we’re stuck with. It’s something that we can change.
The problem is focus. We need to get our dogs to pay attention to us. There is a lot of stuff out there in the big wide world for our dogs to pay attention to. But it isn’t hopeless. We have a tremendous ability to shape what our dogs focus on by the experiences we provide. Sadly, too many people think that they are entitled to their dog’s focus and they should be able to demand it. But it doesn’t actually work like that.
Less interesting than…
It’s a simple behavioural fact that if your dog is interested in things other than you, then you are less interesting than those other things! You fail to hold your dog’s interest. My wife and I teach dog agility classes in a barn that is also used by horses. While the horse people do a great job of cleaning up after their horses, there will always be bits of horse droppings around. Rest assured, the keen noses of the dogs can find them easily. Many dogs find the horse droppings to be a tasty snack and it’s free for the taking. That’s why we tell our students that “You have to be more interesting that horse poop!”
Students will often scold their dog for not being attentive. If the dog wasn’t interested in the owner before they started yelling, it’s not very likely that they are more interested now. Scolding for attention is just saying “pay attention to me or else.” You may have your dog’s attention, but how much are they focused on what you might do to them if their attention waivers? A better answer might be for you to be more interesting to your dog rather than being more threatening. Its easier than you might think.
Be more interesting
A simple way to be more interesting to your dog would be to wear bacon underpants. But that’s not very practical – for many reasons. But there are ways that work almost as well as bacon underpants. Find out what your dog likes. Do they have a favourite game or toy? A favourite activity? Maybe they just like being petted and fussed by you. And all dogs like food. Trust me, they eat food every day.
When it comes to food, you may need to be more interesting than whatever you feed them for dinner. Dogs like things that are stinky – cheese, fish, ham, bacon, etc. Things that your dog doesn’t often get to eat will be among the most valuable. Try a sampling of things and see what your dog really goes crazy for. The same is true for toys and games. Maybe your dog is a tugger. Maybe they love their ball more than anything. They may even go crazy for a squeaky toy. But you won’t know until you try and find out.
Secrets to success
Knowing the things your dog loves is just first part of the puzzle. Somehow you have to let your dog know that you have the stuff he loves and how he can get you to share them. Too often I see trainers ask far too much of their dog before giving up even a tiny morsel of a reward. Why would your dog pay attention to you if you had what they wanted but seemed unwilling to part with it? So the next part of our plan is to show our dog that all the stuff they love is here for them and it’s easy to get.
One secret that I have found is to be spontaneous. While it can be convenient to schedule play time or training time, our dogs build their view of the world on their experiences. If they know that play or training or treats only happen in certain places or at certain times or under certain circumstances, there is no reason to pay attention to you if it isn’t likely that the “good stuff” will happen. If the fun starts to happen any time, anywhere, and in all circumstances, that’s a good reason to pay attention! Now the common sign that fun could happen is you. Not just because you’re YOU but because you have demonstrated that the fun can, and does happen at any time!
Another secret is to be generous. Traditional notions of training have emphasized that we shouldn’t give our dogs the things they want “for free.” They should be made to work for everything. While there is some wisdom in that notion of teaching our dogs that “I will do things for you if you do things for me”, dog owners frequently ask too much of their dogs for very little reward. My dog can go check out that yummy smell over there for FREE. Is it worth paying attention to me instead if she has to do 3 or 4 behaviours and only a chance that she might get a treat? But what if I paid her very well for very little? Would that change her attitude? So while we are being spontaneous in offering our dogs the good stuff, we should be generous and make it easy for them to earn lots of what they like the most for very little effort.
Focus is fun!
It’s really all about showing my dog that the best things in life come from me! More than that, those good things can come at any time and that they are incredibly easy to earn. But my dog isn’t going to believe that just because I decide to be nice to them one Saturday afternoon. It has to be a lifestyle. Sure, there are times when I have to be a bit more strict about when I give up the good stuff like training new behaviours. But if it’s too hard for my dog to get good stuff from me, can you blame her for going shopping on her own out in the world? There’s lots of interesting stuff out there and it’s free.
But if I’m spontaneous and generous and I’m not scolding for attention, my dog lives in a world where lots of fun stuff comes from me at random times and it’s almost free. I just ask for a well known, quick behaviour and the response pays off big time. You will be surprised how quickly your dog will start paying more attention to you after even just a few days of this. All of that “free stuff” out there that they used to pay attention to won’t seem as interesting as you are in just a few days.
You see the secret to being more interesting to your dog is just that – BE MORE INTERESTING TO YOUR DOG! We’re not entitled. We don’t get to demand attention. If we want our dog’s focus, we have to create a relationship where that focus on us pays off in ways that the dog enjoys and wants. It seems so simple when you think about it.
Until next time, have fun with your dogs!
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“Relationships: Life with Dogs”
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