Automatic attention is THE most important behavior that you can teach your dog. There is no point in training other behaviors if your dog is going to ignore you when you ask him to do them.
Lack of attention is often, sadly, the issue that causes owners to give up on their dogs. As a dog trainer along the CT shoreline, I often hear from clients that their dog is “stubborn” or (ahem) “dominant” (please see my blog post on my take on dominance) or even “not food motivated”. I would say that 95 percent of the time, the disconnect between owner and dog is a lack of attention and/or working in an environment that the dog is not yet ready for (in other words, the environment is too distracting for the dog’s current attention level).
Don’t worry! Training a dog to give attention is no different than training a dog to sit or come when called. You don’t get an easy break on this; training attention requires just as much commitment as training any other behavior. The good news is that it can be trained and, once you have your dog’s attention, anything is possible!
Here’s how I like to teach attention:
1. Start by having small pea-sized treats in a low distraction environment (your kitchen or living room). Let your dog sniff one of your treats, and then toss it casually on the floor, slightly to the right of your dog. Let your dog go sniff and eat up the treat.
2. You will watch your dog, let him continue sniffing around if that’s what he does, and the moment your dog turns back to look at you, CLICK (if using a clicker) or mark that moment with “yes” and then toss another treat on the floor to the left of your dog.
3. Let your dog eat up the treat, maybe watch while he sniffs around, but be ready again the moment he turns back towards you, mark (click or say “yes”) and toss another treat to your dog’s right.
4. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. You will find that after a couple of repetitions, you dog will much more quickly turn his attention back to you after eating up is treat. You’ve got him! This is the basis for attention work.
*Note: if you’re not finding your dog turn back to you quicker after a few repetitions, try changing one of two things: note the environment you’re in and consider whether there are distractions that are keeping your dog’s attention, OR consider how tasty the treats are that you’re using with your dog and choose something tastier!
Notice that we are not attaching a cue to the behavior right now. Instead, we are working to build your dog’s default attention. Have fun with this exercise and look forward to improving your connection with your dog as he continues to find that checking-in with you is a behavior that pays off!