Do you frequently find yourself getting frustrated that your dog seems to pay more attention to everything else than he does to you. If your dog is ignoring you for other things, it can be everything from irritating to unsafe. Building engagement is key to having an attentive, well-behaved pet.
First, let’s talk about building value. Most of the behaviors we want our dog to perform don’t have much intrinsic value themselves. Your dog might lie down when he is tired, but from an obedience standpoint, it is a relatively neutral behavior. The same goes for sit, heel, etc. If a behavior is neutral in value, it is hard to get your dog motivated to perform it. If you’ve even repeated a command over and over only for your dog to do something else, that means he didn’t have enough motivation to do the behavior. The way we build value, and thereby build motivation, in a neutral behavior is to condition it to something the dog finds valuable. For most dogs, this can be food, a toy, or petting/praise. If we consistently deliver a valuable reward immediately when he does what we want, he begins to associate that neutral behavior to receiving something of value. After enough repetitions, lying down changes from a neutral value behavior to a positive value behavior. This also builds motivation to complete the behavior when asked. If you see someone telling there dog to sit and it takes 10 commands and pushing their dog’s butt to the ground before the behavior is completed, that tells you that the behavior does not have a positive value to the dog.
When your dog learns that performing behaviors for you is valuable, he will start to become more and more attentive. He won’t want to miss commands or ignore you because he will miss out in opportunities to receive things that he wants.
Different items/actions will have different levels of value to each dog. Some dogs love food, some dogs love toys, some dogs love affection. If you’re lucky, your dog loves all of them, but there will be a heirarchy of value within everything. Usually, food or toys are at the top, while affection tends to be a little lower on the scale. It can still be used, but it isn’t as powerful at building motivation. Also, keep in mind that things don’t have a set value all the time, they change. If your dog just played fetch for an hour, the ball they normally love might not have as much value as it did before because they are tired. The same goes with food, if they just finished a meal, that extra treat may not be as enticing as it was before.
By putting together all of these pieces, you can manipulate your dog’s motivation level. When you are starting out, use a lot of rewards for behaviors. As you get more and more engagement out of your dog, you can start to ask them to work a little harder for a reward. When we start to give rewards less frequently, it helps to throw in some higher value rewards as “jackpots”. This keeps their attitude up because at any time, you can bring out that big reward. Keep it random, sometimes it is only one or two commands before the big reward, sometimes it is seven or eight. If you notice that the level of engagement you are getting seems to be slipping, step back to using better rewards and using them more frequently. If you want to get started and would like some professional guidance to make sure things go smoothly, KC Dawgz has a broad range of training options from group classes to private, one-on-one sessions to get you off on the right foot.