Attention is the foundation for a good performance. Attention is a learned behavior. Without a puppy or adult dog’s attention, you cannot teach him anything. In obedience, attention is learning to ignore distractions, be they other dogs and people, noises, or smells, while maintaining a specific head position, such as in heel position. Many canine events, such as herding, Schutzhund, and agility, require a dog to maintain a different type of attention. A dog is required to pay attention, listen to and comply with his handler’s commands while he is working or training. This form of attention differs from the learned head-position attention (for example, watch) required in obedience.
Taught or forced attention is very different from voluntary attention. In obedience, forced attention is demanding a specific head position (for example, the heel position) and correcting the dog for looking away or deviating from that position. In my opinion, this technique can create a great deal of stress for the dog because he must think more about where he is looking than about what he is doing. He is watching or paying attention because he does not want to be corrected.
Experience has taught me that positive reinforcement motivates voluntary attention. Puppies and adult dogs are motivated to pay attention because doing so is fun, and there’s a fun reward (that is, positive reinforcement—a cookie, toy, or praise) involved. You give your dog a reason why it is to his advantage to pay attention. The dog is thinking, “Any minute my mummy is going to throw my ball or spit a cookie or take off running, so I better pay attention.” Voluntary attention teaches a dog to pay attention to his job while maintaining a positive attitude, as opposed to paying attention out of stress or from fear of correction.
Fun creates focus, and focus maximizes a puppy’s propensity to learn. The more your puppy focuses on you, the more you are able to teach him. I use interactive play to increase a puppy’s focus and attention.
Developing an adult dog that is happy, eager, and motivated to train and work requires that you teach the puppy to focus on you rather than on the countless distractions vying for his attention. One way I do this in training and playing is with movement. Puppies like movement, so I take a few steps forward, backward, or sideways while I am talking to my puppy in a happy voice. I hop up and down, spin around in circles, and so forth. Other times, I stand still and whisper. I like to see how softly I can speak while still keeping my puppy’s attention. The quieter my voice, the more intently my puppy listens. Scientific research has proven that a dog’s hearing is far superior to humans. For this reason, it is never necessary to yell commands.
That said, sometimes I will talk in a high-pitched voice or make funny noises. My puppy doesn’t really understand the words, but he understands my tone of voice. While I’m chatting away to my puppy, I will interject a few fun play pops with his leash. I wiggle my body or hop from side to side. I might do a 360-degree circle in front of him, and then tell him in a happy voice, “There you are!” I might turn my back on my puppy so he has to run around to my front to see my face. When he does, I ask him, “Where were you?” or “Where’d you go?” or “There’s my silly boy!” If he does not run around to face me, I will bend over and peek between my legs at him and say, “I see you!” My spontaneity and enthusiasm keep my puppy’s interest and focus on me. Building a rapport with your puppy helps maintain focus and will ultimately help to reduce the stress of training and campaigning.
If my puppy is very distracted with his surroundings, I might get on the ground and pick inquisitively at the grass. “Aaahhh, what is that?” Ninety percent of the time a puppy’s natural curiosity will get the better of him, and like the neighborhood busybody, he will rush over to investigate the situation. He will want to know what is going on: “What are you doing, mummy?” When he starts poking his nose around to see what I am doing, I will kiss his nose and say, “I love you!” I might touch his toes or toss some grass in the air. I never under any circumstances grab or try to restrain my puppy at this time. This would cause him to shy away, and in the future he will think twice about coming to me.
Voluntary attention, which is what I teach, is about instilling in a puppy or adult dog the behavior of wanting to watch me. He is not being forced—out of fear, anxiety, worry, or corrections—to watch me, but rather he is watching because it is fun to watch his mummy. Good things happen when he makes eye contact with me. Here are some fun games I like to play to instill voluntary attention.
Food on the Floor
This is a fun game for older puppies around five to seven months of age. Start with your puppy on a short but loose leash—short enough so that his head can’t reach the ground, but not so short that you are restraining him or holding his head in place. If you have a small-breed puppy, begin by kneeling on the floor so you are at his level. Feed him two or three yummy cookies in a row and then drop one on the floor. “Cookie. Cookie. Cookie. Oops, dropped one!” Most puppies will dive for the ground trying to snatch the cookie up, but because your leash is short, your puppy won’t be able to reach it. He’ll probably stare at the ground for a few seconds, as if willing the leash to become longer. Wait him out. Say nothing. When he looks back at you, say “Good boy!” or “Yes!” (or click if you are clicker training) and reward him with a tidbit from your hand. Repeat this behavior several times until the cookies are gone. You can then pick up the cookies on the floor and feed them to him. Do not let your puppy eat the cookies off the floor, as this defeats the purpose of the exercise.
This is a fun game developed by Sylvia Bishop. Place a yummy treat in your mouth. Put your index fingers to your lips and ask your puppy, “What’s this?” When he looks at you, praise him with “Yes!” (or click if you are clicker training) and reward him with a yummy treat from your mouth. Eventually, your puppy learns that “What’s this?” means “Look at my face.” You can then begin incorporating “What’s this?” into your recall command. As your puppy is running toward you, put your fingers to your lips and ask, “What’s this?” Make the command fun and exciting, and your puppy will want to run to you to get his treat. This helps to teach a puppy to look up when coming in on a recall or come command.
Nose or Hand Touch Game
Agility trainers, and some obedience trainers, like to teach a nose or hand touch. It is a great game to use when setting up for the heel position in training or while in the obedience ring, or anytime you want to focus your dog’s attention on you. Begin with a yummy tidbit between your index and middle finger. Let your puppy see the treat. Hold your hand out, palm facing down, about waist high (a bit lower if you have a small-breed or small puppy). The chances are good that your puppy will nose-bump or lick your hand where the treat is wedged between your fingers. When he does so, let him get the treat as you simultaneously say, “Touch” or “Yay! Good touch!” (or click if you are clicker training). It won’t take long before your puppy understands that touch means “touch my hand.”
If your puppy already likes to jump up, use this behavior to your advantage by having him jump up and touch your hand. You can use a verbal or physical cue or both, such as presenting your hand palm down for your dog to touch.