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Can I have your attention please?

I wonder how many people have begun reading this article when they are not actually interested in dog training. The reason for this is our parents, schoolteachers and our superiors have conditioned us so well that seeing or reading this statement we stop what we are doing and initially pay attention irrespective of the content. Another one is Important Announcement as used so successfully in Kathryn Hollings advert for her Pedigree Puppy finding website.

How many of us see an interesting headline in a newspaper and so start to read the content until the subject looses our interest and we move on. It is important that the subject is interesting enough to retain their complete attention and encourage them to continue reading.

Therefore, what does this have anything to do with training our dogs? When ever instructors teach any type of training class they always look at the new handlers arriving with their dogs for initiation or the first class. Often they look to pick out those dogs and handlers where they think there will be a problem and which they think will be difficult dogs. Some instructors will view these as a challenge whilst others see them as a pain and so it is a shame that often these dogs fail to continue in the class.

A class without such dogs is of course easier to teach for the instructor but it is failing those owners who do have the most problems and why such classes are so important not just for them but the whole class.

Some of these dogs will show differing levels of aggression whilst others are possibly shy and timid. These dogs are at either end of the spectrum and having such dogs in a class helps everyone to understand what bad looks like and so better understand the training. Conversely, it is always good to have a well-trained stooge dog working in the class to show what is achievable. It is important to have the full spectrum of dogs in a class because they will meet them all in the real world.

It is necessary to allow a little time for the dogs to see their new environment but then instructors should be looking for is to see which dogs are showing attention to their owners. Initially the dogs are looking around the class because this is new to them with so many dogs coming together but the dogs should then start looking to their owners (leaders) on how they should react in this new environment. Dogs that do not see their handler as their leader will have to make up their own minds as to what they need to do in such a new situation. Some may wish to fight some may wish to play but that is what they want to do, but it is not the handlers.

After watching this coming together it is then up to the instructor to note the actions of each dog. Following this, the instructor should then question each handler how they gain their dogs attention by using commands like sit, down or stop pulling and notice how they achieve this even if this is just for a moment.

Other questions to ask handlers is what does it take to make your dogs tail wag or to make your dog come to you. Does your dog like toys and how many does he have and can you take them off them. How much do they like their food? It is always a good idea to ask how they feed their dog, where and when as well as knowing does the dog eat it eagerly. If not, does the owner pick up any unfinished food? Also, ask if they have another dog at home and which is the more dominant. Often dogs that play together have little interest in working for the handler, as they do not know the right language. All such questions are to understand what each handler needs to do in order to gain and hold their dog’s attention.

Whilst I try to make all my classes interesting and make each student feel they have indeed learnt something, this is fine as the class is to teach handlers how to train their dogs. It is not the instructor’s job to teach the dog. Yes, sometimes the instructor will step in and take control of a handler’s dog in order to help show by demonstration the training and show that it works with their dog. Very often, we can see handlers believing their dog is the problem but when an instructor takes their dog and it immediately follows the commands correctly; owners therefore think they are the problem.

It takes some diplomacy not to let the handler think this and are being criticised. If an instructor does, the handler will often go home. To stop this happening, the instructor must be able to gain the dogs attention as well teaching the handler how to achieve this too.

Certainly, enforcement or compulsion training using pain will succeed because the dog does not wish for pain. Often though the pain used by an instructor is minimal, using well timed short little tugs on a choker. When the handler tries this they often get the pain level either too high or too low making success less than achievable as demonstrated by the instructor.

If the method of gaining a dogs attention is food, toys, clickers or our behaviour then our dog must be receptive to them. A dog that does not care for food, does not play so does not like toys, and has no interest in a clicker then there is going to be a problem. As to our behaviour I ask again what is it that makes our dogs tails wag. I just give Winston a wave and his tail starts to wag.

Many times handlers will tell me their dog has no interests other than visiting the local dogs or chasing cats but towards the handler, there is disinterest. I then switch to silly mode and immediately their dogs become interested.

The other week I went to see a dog that is in need of some quick obedience and they told me their dog had no interest in anything. Their little dog was the dominant one so it took all the toys. Food was also of little interest so they left food in the bowl so it could eat when it liked. It could though sit and go down but it was a little slow. A recall or fetch a ball was going to be impossibly yet in those first few minutes I discovered it like squeaky toys and little frankfurters so after a little while it fetched me the ball and came to me on command. How is this possible if it is not my dog?

When we took it out for heelwork, initially it was certainly more interested in other wild life. Fortunately waving the bag of titbits in front of it the choice of playing with the other dogs or coming to me was as forgone conclusion.

It is important that handlers must be able to gain their dogs attention and retain it. Owners who experiment to see how they can make their dog’s tail wag will have found the key that will help them train their dog to come to them every time, irrespective of other distractions.

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