Lisa Kerley BSc KPA-CTP

Clients often comment when they watch me with their dog, “Why does he pay so much attention to YOU?” Some might believe I have a professional secret. After 18 years of being with, handling and training dozens of dogs every day, I do have experience on my side. I believe however, that something else is the key to success.

Although some dogs pay attention to their handlers more readily than others, any dog can quickly learn to tune us out because of the way we ARE with them. How we communicate with our dogs and how we interact with them both have a profound effect on whether they choose to stay with us mentally or choose to tune us out. Without realizing it, many people are actually teaching their dogs to ignore them.

1. Tune in to Your Dog

From the very first moments I am with any dog, I make our interaction meaningful. I pay attention. I listen. I watch. I reward any attention on their part by giving my attention to them. I notice when they make a good choice or even just try to. I recognize when they are confused or something is worrying them and support them or adjust something to make them more comfortable. Realizing someone is actually paying attention to them changes everything for the dog. It gives them a reason to tune in. Why should they bother to pay attention if no one is doing the same for them?

2. You get what your pay for

We all want our dogs to be well-behaved. When our dogs ARE being good, we often don’t acknowledge that. Perhaps it’s because we just expect them to be that way. Perhaps we are glad for a break from the misbehaviour. Whatever the reason, ignoring the good stuff is the fastest way to make it happen less. Behaviour that is reinforced, will happen more. That’s just the way it works. So when your dog checks in with you, reciprocate the gesture. Praise him, acknowledge him, give him something he enjoys. Let him know you appreciate it!

3. What are you saying?

Do you whisper sweet nothings into your four-legged friend’s ear? Are wonderful long-winded monologues part of your time together? Even though English isn’t our dogs’ native language, we spend a lot of time talking to them. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It helps develop and strengthen our bond. And darn it, it just feels good. On the other hand, when we are trying to relay information to get our dogs to do something or give instructions, our tendency to blabber makes it harder for the dog to pick out the important parts. In those instances we tend to say a lot, when a little would be more valuable.

Words that should be important to the dog lose meaning because of how we use them.

Does this sound familiar? “Sit. No! Down. Off. I said off! Stop That!” Using a plethora of words when you’re trying to get your dog to just do one thing, is not only ineffective, it’s frustrating to the dog.

Do you repeat yourself? Nagging makes others want to tune out, our dogs included!

And how about your dog’s name? Do you call them and then not let them know why you called? Using their name and then leaving them hanging is a fast way to turn this attention-getter into an attention-buster.

4. What is it this time?

Boundaries, rules and consequences need to be consistent. Changing them as the mood suits us is not fair. “Sticking to the rules” isn’t tough love. Changing the rules creates confusion and this can lead to stress and frustration.

Getting upset and shoving your dog off when they jump on you when you’re in dress clothes, but petting them when you’re not, is unreasonable.

Also, words in your dog’s vocabulary or cues, should each have their own meaning. You can confuse or frustrate your dog if you use them inconsistently. If you ask your dog to do something, it should mean the same thing every time. If your dog jumps on you and you tell them “Down!”, do you actually mean for them to lay on the ground?

Do you sometimes ask your dog to “Sit” and then not bother following through if they don’t right away? Or how about telling them to do something when you haven’t even taught them that yet? All of these situations could make your dog want to tune you out, rather than try to figure you out!

5. Too Much of a good thing

Every living being needs some degree of freedom for their sense of well-being. Who doesn’t want to give their dogs some freedom to enjoy the pleasure that comes with running free and exploring open spaces? If you have been responsible and taken the time to teach and practice the skills your dog needs to stay safe and be appropriate before providing some freedom, good for you! We need more like you. Offering freedom still requires some care and thought, however.

For a dog that routinely gets things on their own, there isn’t much need to pay attention to their people. They can accomplish things and acquire things independently. No need to check in, ask permission or show a little patience.

Let’s take my daycare as an example. We often hear from people visiting or beginning at our daycare, how quiet and calm the dogs are. So what’s our ‘trade secret’? It’s quite simple.

When some of our dogs get dropped off, they are literally bouncing on all fours. It would be easy to just let them right in and start the fun. While at the facility however, we want them to believe everything wonderful comes from us.

From the first moment they arrive and throughout their visits, things the dogs want – whether that is going through a doorway to get outside or to a playmate, coming out of a resting area, or getting a chew or a snack – are provided in a way that rewards them for attention. Be calm a moment, check in and Voila! – the pooches get what they want. It’s so simple and yet very powerful. We are aware of what our dogs want in the moment and use those things as Real Life Rewards. We reinforce attention in a way that is REALLY meaningful to the dogs. We make checking in have true value to the dog.

6. Are you Flexi-ble?

Extendable leashes are a popular choice for many people. They are an easy way to provide extra romping room without the risk of being off leash. They are also a super fast way to teach your dog to pay attention to everything around them EXCEPT you. By allowing your dog to continually be at a distance from you, they can gain easy access to stuff without paying an iota of attention to you. They are also great for teaching your dog to pull, rush up to people and other dogs.

7 . A little effort goes a long way

Micro-managing your dog may seem like the exact opposite of too much freedom. How could they both contribute to the same thing? Let’s consider the example from the daycare. When a dog arrives, we wait for them to sit and check in before we open the gate and let the fun begin. Some parents think the rule is “My dog’s butt must be on the ground”. So, some people ask their dog to sit; some push their dog into a sit. On the surface it looks the same, but what we want is actually completely different. When you micro-manage, you’re the one making all the effort. The dog doesn’t need to think about what’s happening or what he’s doing; he doesn’t need to make choices and he doesn’t need to pay attention. Instead we wait for the dog to choose to sit – all by themselves. By offering the behaviour without being prompted or being made to do it, we know the dog is tuned in.

You don’t need to be a professional to have a dog that wants to be tuned in to you. Creating that dog does takes commitment, however. With a little consistency, clarity and involvement you’ll be irresistible!

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