How to Get Your Dog’s Attention

A few weeks ago, I finally had the opportunity to attend a dog show again.  I used to show my Labradors in conformation and obedience, and even dabbled in agility and working certificate tests.  My son and his father are allergic to dogs, and neither can live with them in the house.  It was a heartbreaking necessity to place my pets.

I miss this part of my life, so I went along to hang with the old crowd.  The Ann Arbor Kennel Club put on the event, and over a thousand dogs entered the show.  The show is held outdoors, under a large tent, with smaller breeds inside.  As I was standing under the tent, they handed me a leash to hold, with the warning that “Walker is naughty.”

I stood under this tent, with this “naughty” dog, and began thinking about the huge divide in “naughty” between breeders and pet owners.  This “naughty” dog occasionally pulls on his leash or tries to play with other dogs.  He was engaged with me and my requests of him, and actively looked for direction.

Wouldn’t you love for your definition of “naughty” to include those behaviors?  “Wants my attention.”  “Occasionally checks out other dogs.”  “Mostly stands around waiting for something to happen.”  We’re standing under a tent, with hundreds of other dogs, and can’t hear any barking.  No dog fights.  Every dog in the place behaves, except one little English Springer puppy that doesn’t want to be brushed.

I was amazed by this realization.

Why do show dogs behave better?

The real question is why show dogs behave better.

These dogs usually live in a home with a dozen or so other dogs, so one-on-one time rarely happens.  They get maybe a half hour a week of solo time, a little more if their owner actively shows them or they take a lot of grooming.  Being better behaved makes no sense–they should behave worse.

However, the one-on-one time these dogs do get means a lot more.  The owner intends on a specific outcome from any one-on-one time.  The dog may need additional training to the leash, standing perfectly, or grooming.  Every second, the owner trains the dog with intent.

Essentially, the only one-on-one time the dog ever receives requires the dog to behave very well, almost perfectly.  So the dog knows that when they have the attention of their owner, they only keep it by doing exactly as the owner asks.  The dog’s attention focuses completely on their owner, because their owner’s undivided attention is a rare commodity.

Completely different from your home, right?  You have one or two dogs, and their one-on-one time is cleaning up scraps in the kitchen or watching TV.  You don’t challenge your dog to do anything.  Your dog doesn’t work for your attention–when you want something, you have to work for their attention.

How do we flip the script and get our dog’s attention?

You probably don’t want to add another ten dogs to your home just to get your dog’s attention.  So how do you flip the script, and make your dog work for your attention again?

With a household pet, you can’t turn every interaction into a training exercise.  It’s exhausting for both you and your dog.  Use the opportunities that you do have to get, and keep his attention.

Your dog doesn’t value your attention in the way a breeder’s dog will.  Use something he does value.  If your dog values playing fetch in the back yard, do your training routine before allowing him to play fetch.  If he does well, have a rowdy and long game of fetch.  If he does poorly, have a more boring game.

Do you ever tell your children, “If you behave at the store, I will buy you a sucker at checkout?”  Use that principle.  If your dog behaves poorly on walks, start the training session in your yard.  If he behaves on his way to the sidewalk, you’ll continue.  Otherwise, take him back inside and start dinner.  He’ll think about how he missed out on that nice walk, and will listen better next time.

Create planned training times throughout the day.  Cooking dinner works great for stationary training, like sits and downs.  Running errands works great for leash training (weather permitting, of course) because you can practice walking, and if he can’t behave he can stay in the car by himself.

A Few Other Factors

Owners of show dogs spend tons of time and money training their dogs.  Even if the owner doesn’t actively attend training classes with this dog, they probably spent thousands of dollars training other dogs.  They have a ton of experience in the way their breed thinks.

Spending time and money on quality training classes makes a huge difference in the behavior of your dog.  Not only do you spend eight weeks learning how to train your dog, but you build a network of others who provide ideas and advice.  Training classes do so much more than teach your dog how to walk on a leash.  Your network can help if your dog develops a weird disease or behavior issues down the line.

Finally, owners have quality equipment to train their dogs.  While the basics–a leash and collar–seem basic, not all are created equal.  Chain leads hurt your hands, and cheap ones break easily.  Cute collars slip off easily, and a heavy choke chain doesn’t make as big an impression as a jeweler’s link.  Good equipment costs more, but reaps better results.  Show owners have literally tried it all, and know exactly what piece of equipment will get results.

Have you been to a dog show?

I love dog shows, because of all the different breeds.  I also love meeting the puppies, and seeing the top champions all dressed out.  Have you been to a dog show, or are you interested in showing?  Tell me about it in the comments!

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