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Engaging Your Dog

Author: Sally Bushwaller | Date: February 8, 2013

In class, the most common complaint I hear is “My dog has ADHD”, or “My dog won’t pay attention to me”, or “My dog does this fine at home”. Right after I hear that, I frequently see the handler pulling on the leash to get the dog to pay attention. Trying to make your dog pay attention to you will ultimately backfire on you.

Think of a horse. If you put a bridle or halter on a horse and try to force or pull the horse, he will resist. It’s the same thing for dogs. Dogs respond much better when you don’t try to force them to do things.  We want our dogs to want to work with us, but how do you get to that point?

That’s the million dollar question.

When the dog gets more pleasure from engaging with the environment than the person, I know the relationship needs to be repaired. The damage is almost always NOT a result of harsh punishment, but usually a result of old fashioned thinking, “I must be in charge all the time and dominate my dog.” This simply isn’t the case and in fact, the opposite is true.

Sometimes the dog’s relationship with people has been damaged by a previous owner. Regardless of the cause, before you try to do any obedience with your dog, make it your mission to mend the relationship.

It all starts with engagement.

Engagement involves getting your dog to want to be with you, working and having fun.

If you have engagement, the obedience part of the equation is a breeze. An engaged dog would rather play tug, do some retrieving, or some fun treat training with you, than run off to sniff a fallen log.

Play and fun is the key to good engagement. Make it a point, especially when your dog is a pup, to play with them every day. Instill their prey drive, by teasing them with a tug toy, making it squirm around on the ground. I wouldn’t do any hard tugging with a puppy until they have their adult teeth. Tugging should be reinforcing, and if you tug too hard, you could hurt their necks or it could be painful to their teeth if they are losing baby teeth and have adult teeth coming in. So puppy tugging should be mostly chasing with just a little light tugging.

Take your pup or new dog to a different location every day and do nothing but play, put your dog on a long line and throw some retrieves for your dog, or do some super fun training like getting your dog to follow a food lure. Walk around and reinforce your dog very heavily when she is with you and paying attention. This is not about being in heel position. It’s about being “present” and engaged with and having fun with you. You could even do something like go sit on a park bench with very high value treats and treat her each time she pays attention to you.

When your dog looks at you each time you go to a new location as if to say, “What fun thing are we going to do here?”, then you know your relationship with your dog is in a great place. To quote Suzanne Clothier, your dog is in the “think and learn zone” and you are ready to start training actual obedience skills.

Your dog will start to see new places not as something he needs to go investigate or be stressed about, but as a cool new place to play with you!

If you would like details on my rules for playing Tug, read my previous blog post. Have fun playing with your dog!


    1. Lynn says:

      Nice, Sally!

A great experience.

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