by Debbie Cerda


To have your dog effectively under control, be it at obedience trials, at home or at the park, you must have your dog’s attention.  The best trained dog will not respond to commands if you do not have his attention.  Getting your dog’s attention is not the be-all and end-all, an untrained dog will still not respond.  But if you nave an attentive dog the foundation is laid for the obedience work to be built upon.

Problems caused by inattention

Inattentive dogs will exhibit the following symptoms

  • Lagging in heelwork (looking at things other than the owner)
  • Sniffing (finding more interesting things to do)
  • Lack of enthusiasm and interest (no interest in ‘your’ activities)
  • Breaking stays (because he ’forgot’ which exercise he was doing)
  • Failing to respond to commands (he didn’t hear or see the command or not feeling compelled to respond)

Reasons for inattention

Pups will usually seek eye contact, however we do not train to maintain this behaviour hence it dies out.  Dogs that are not treated as part of a ‘team’ during training often ‘switch off’ and mechanically perform the required tasks without really being involved.  Handlers that neglect to praise a decent attempt at an exercise and expect the dog to do the whole thing correctly in the learning stages will have a dog that has ‘given up’ bothering to do the right thing.

Methods to Increase Attentiveness

  • Collar movement     Keeping your dog’s collar higher up on the neck, closer to the ears, will generally elicit more attention.  It seems to be a more sensitive position.  Many handlers abuse this knowledge by correcting the dog with the collar up high - that is NOT what we are asking for.  We are using every available tool to get the dog’s attention, not inflict pain.
  • Sharp turns     An inattentive dog will always get left behind during right and right-about turns.  He may also get left behind or tripped over during left and left-about turns.  Performing many sharp right turns increases the dog’s need to keep an eye on you.  Once the dog is starting to pay attention use sharp right turns to keep his attention, or to ‘catch’ the dog out and get his attention back.
  • Interesting variations     Use whatever turns your dog on as far as rewards go, and vary the item.  Moist foods seem to be more tempting (hot dog slices, cheese cubes and liver bits) than dry food (standard dry dog food or biscuits).  Use toys that the dog likes to grab or chase, or squeaky toys.  Work out a selection of items that tickle your dog’s fancy and alternate amongst them.  Introduce things on occasion just to keep them guessing!  Try to keep the reward hidden until you are ready for the dog to retrieve it.  That way he won’t learn to behave only when he sees that the reward is available.

Remember to reward and reinforce at varying intervals.  Don’t wait for the entire exercise to be completed to perfection.  Reward the dog when he least expects it!  Also vary the size of the reward.  Maybe use single hot dog slices to keep him heeling close for 30 seconds and then give him a whole handful of them.  Go back to individual slices and then throw his toy.  Alternate verbal praise while you get down on your hand and knees and romp with him.   ‘Good Boy!’ ‘What a clever dog!’  ‘Who’s the best dog in the whole world?’  ‘Atta Boy!’  ‘Aren’t you so good!’\

  • Consistency     Be consistent with your expectations.  Don’t expect the dog to be totally focused on you one day, and let him look around the next.  Decide on a level of achievement and train towards it.
  • Speed     It is essential that you move quickly when training your dog.  If you dawdle along your dog he has time to look around, knowing that you do things slowly and he only has to check your position every so often.  If you walk fast and constantly do different turns, pixie steps, etc, the dog has to pay attention or risk being caught out.  You can still practise fast and slow pace, but most people walk way too slow on their normal pace (fast and slow pace are double and half your normal walking pace respectively.  So if you speed up your normal pace you should correspondingly increase the others as well.)  If the dog has time to look around, you are going too slowly.
  • Encourage Eye Contact     Have the dog sitting on or above eye level with you, for example, the dog on a top step and you sitting a couple of steps down.  Use a command to get the dog’s attention (something like ‘watch’).  As soon as the dog looks you in the eye, verbally praise him and offer a reward.  The praise should be gentle and encourage the dog to remain looking at you - not excitable enough to break his concentration.  Be sure to reward only when eye contact is made with you - not when the dog is looking at your hands for a reward!  It may be difficult for submissive dogs to make eye contact as it is seen in the dog kingdom as a challenge to authority.  With such dogs it won’t hurt you to bolster their self confidence by moving even lower so the dog clearly has the upper position.  (Don’t do this with dominant type dogs - they may think their time has come to make a challenge!)  As the dog begins to understand exactly what action brings the reward, slowly extend the time that the dog needs to hold eye contact before rewarding him.  Sometimes reward him almost immediately.  Other times make him wait a varying amount of time.  Don’t reprimand the dog for breaking the contact, simply use your command word to re-engage him.  When he is quite proficient at this when sitting, keep him sitting, but move around a bit yourself, and then progress to standing right next to him as per the heel position.  Eventually you will be able to get his attention in the sitting heel position and be able to keep it as you walk forward with him heeling beside you.  Remember as you make each progression to initially praise for shorter periods of eye contact.  Better to reward success than to push him too hard to the point of failure.  As success is attained, you can vary the period again.

Things to Avoid

  • When first training to improve your dog’s attentiveness, don’t be too concerned with correcting the underlying behaviour (i.e. heelwork).  Concentrate entirely on getting the dog focused on you.  Then you can re-introduce the exercise whilst maintaining the dog’s attention.
  • If you don’t have the enthusiasm to train properly on a particular day, don’t do it at all.  Better to have a rest day than have a sloppy training session and allow the dog to think it can misbehave and get away with it.
  • Be prepared to be flexible, not all days will see you winging our way to stardom.  Sometimes you just need to consolidate a particular level for a few sessions before moving on.


You will not gain and keep your dog’s attention by doing predictable things in a predictable manner on a regular basis.  The essence of attention getting is to be as unpredictable as possible.  The dog must be kept guessing what you are going to do next, which way you are going to move, whether or not  he’s about to ‘score’ a reward, etc.  Sometimes praise or reward whilst continuing the exercise and other times make a big fuss and completely break from whatever you were doing.