Picture this: you’re out with a friend and the two of you decide to check out an art gallery.  You become fully engaged by a painting at the center of the room so you head straight for it. As you’re closely examining the canvas, soaking up the vibrant colors and technique, your friend calls to you from across the gallery.  You gesture to him that you will be with him in just a moment, but he keeps calling to you.  You successfully tune him out, and actually can’t believe how rude he is being.  His voice is getting louder, and he even starts to make some strange noises to try and get you to look.  Now you’re just irritated, and purposefully move onto another painting, even farther from your friend.  As you begin to check out the new painting, your friend races over to you, grabs you by the arm and jerks you repeatedly until you finally rip your arm away and storm out of the gallery.

Now, imagine a different scenario.  You and your friend go into a gallery together. You notice an interesting painting and start to head that way, but as you start to veer off your friend gently touches your arm and says in quiet voice, “wait, let’s start over here, at the beginning, that way we’ll get to see it all and we won’t have to jump around, what do you say?” You agree, his idea makes sense, and the two of you get to enjoy the whole exhibit together. 

Tell me, who would you rather hang out with?  The loud nagger that demands your attention in the rudest of ways, or the quiet insister whose ideas typically work out for both of you?  I think I know the answer, so let’s get to what all of this means when it comes to dogs.

Shaping attention is the first thing covered in my pet dog training classes, whatever the level.  What this means is that attention is not lured, as it is in most reward-based classes in my area.  There is no ‘show a dog a cookie and bring it up to your face’ nonsense (that I used to teach).  Instead, I ask dog handlers to be patient and wait for their dogs to orient toward them.  In the case of one client, this meant she parked herself in a chair for the good part of an hour, waiting for her puppy to look at her.  The reason it took so very long is a lack of clicker skills on her part, since she is very new to the method.  She missed several clickable moments in the beginning, but once she got the hang of it, she wound up with a puppy that wouldn’t look away from her, as all of my clients do.  

Shaping attention goes like this:  park yourself somewhere, put your dog on a leash if there are other dogs or people around, or if you’re in a new place.  Have your clicker and some yummy treats ready.  As soon as your dog glances in your direction click and treat.  If he looks away click and treat him when he looks back, if he keeps looking, click and treat him at varying intervals.  Boom! You have a pooch that won’t look away.  Start out any training session in a new place like this, and revert back to it whenever your dog is ignoring you.  Do not speak to him, do not touch him, do not (under any circumstances!) pop his collar, and please don’t say his name or any other cue (like come or sit).  The nature of the human is to call to the dog relentlessly, and when the dog finally turns toward you (as if to say WHAT?!), you immediately ask him for something else, like a sit, or a nose-touch.  BAD HUMAN! Reward attention and attention will happen.  Nag for attention and your dog will most certainly ignore you whenever possible. 

The best times to hang out and shape attention are usually in dog classes, out on walks (my training buddy and colleague hung out in the middle of trail for 30 minutes or so one day, waiting for her young dog to remember she existed, but once he did they had a great walk together!), at dog shows or events, and other “training” times.  There are times when this is not appropriate.  Times that your dog’s inattentiveness can be chalked up to a strong emotional state, like fear or anxiety, are terrible times to shape attention.  For instance, if your dog is dog-reactive on leash, and she is barking and snarling and lunging at Fluffy from down the street as you two pass each other on a walk, do not wait for attention, it won’t happen until after Fluffy is gone.  If your dog is afraid of going to the vet, don’t try to shape attention in the lobby.  There are different, more appropriate things to do in each of these situations, and a qualified reward-based trainer or behaviorist can help. 

So the moral of the story is, quit nagging! Don’t nag your friends, significant others, family members, or your dogs! It will get you nowhere fast, I promise.

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