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Have you ever tried to get a child’s attention while they were playing their favorite video game? The chance of them hearing you and responding is pretty slim. In fact if you have a child then you have no doubt called their name at least 10 times before they finally answered you!
They are not ignoring you, because whatever they are doing at the moment you call them holds more value than responding to your voice. This can be seen in adults as well who may be listening to a song they love or or in the middle of a book they are reading. We all get distracted and at times a little irritated when someone is asking us the same question to you over and over and over until you finally reply. Selective hearing is alive and well in both humans and their dogs!
When it comes to talking to your dog it can be equally as difficult. They get into the distraction zone easily and for many reasons. Once they are focused on something it takes a real valuable word or noise to bring them back to your attention. In order for this training to work, you must be consistent in the words that you are using and reward every single time.
Below is an example of how this would work if I were training an adult to look at me when I said their name;Me- I call your name.
You: look up at me
Me- I give you a $100 bill each time
In this example, there is real value in looking at me when I call out your name. Even if that book is one of the best you’ve read, some of your concentration will be on my voice when I am nearby. If you have a reason to believe my voice may lead to something positive, then you will be more likely to listen for it the first time.
The key words here are the first time. I would like to believe that my dog lives to hear my voice each day but that is far from the truth. As a trainer, I often hear owners calling their dog multiple times trying to get their attention and look at them. When the dog finally decides to look up or walk back over, the owners usually will praise and pay them. So the dog was rewarded for coming over when he felt like it and not the first time he was called. This only reinforces to your dog that your voice is really not that important!
So how can we start to train our dogs to become a better listener when we are talking to them? The quickest way to get their attention is to start paying them. Their payment will look much different of course than the $100 most humans would need to cooperate! So lets start by using some really tasty food and use it every time we train our dogs. The good stuff that I train with could be liver or chicken or even cheese. We want to grab their attention and this food usually does the trick.
If your dog has never been trained using a marker word (or a clicker), then the first thing you will have to do is teach them one word that will mean they were successful and will be rewarded! When I train, using the word “YES” lets my dog know that they did something really great and if they continue to do it they will be rewarded.
The steps below are how I introduce the new marker word that will help your pup understand that “YES” means they will be getting something really tasty!
- Take 5 little pieces of a high value treat, say the word “YES” and give them one treat.
- Yes- then reward, in this order.
- Repeat that 5 times.
After you have done this try calling your dog’s name and when he looks at you, say “Yes” and pay! Keep the food(reward) behind your back so your dog is not looking at your hand when you are talking. I will use the training exercise 2 or 3 times each day over the first week. Just remember that if you are practicing outside the distractions will make it a little more difficult. Don’t throw too many of them at your dog all at once. Small steps are best and be sure you never miss a chance to reward your dog.
Once he knows to look up at you when you say his name, add a cue like “watch” or “look”. Whatever word that you choose, be sure to use the same word every time so it makes sense to your dog. If your dog is starting to understand what the attention game is all about go ahead and grab his leash and practice. I would begin this exercise inside to keep the distractions to a minimum.
Sit your dog in front of you, on leash, and say your dog’s name. When your dog looks at you, praise, and back up a few steps. Encourage your dog to follow you while continuing to watch you. Praise again and give a treat. Keep the training sessions short and upbeat.
Getting your dog’s attention takes time and practice, but soon your dog will begin to look at you for guidance each day.