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Ask A Dog Trainer: How Do I Get My Distracted Dog To Focus On Me?

| Published on September 27, 2023

You are trying to teach your dog to sit. You’ve tried every trick in the book and he just won’t put that rump on the ground. He’s turning his head every which way, he’s staring off into the distance, he’s rolling around on the ground, he may even be lunging and barking at the bird that just flew by.

Sound familiar? If your dog acts like this, it’s time to stop training.

When we are training our dogs, we are usually focused almost solely on getting them to do what we want. Whether it’s as simple as a “sit” or as complicated as weaving through poles, our attention is stuck on, “Is my dog doing what I want?”

If he isn’t obeying, you may move on to the next method, or just stop trying altogether, thinking, “This dog just can’t be trained!” What you need to do is stop and realize that you do not have your dog’s attention, so she is not going to learn anything that you try and teach. You need to fix that before you can do anything else.

Getting (And Keeping) Your Dog’s Attention

For the most part, dogs are, by nature, easily distracted. They get interested in smells, other animals, toys, people, food, etc. Sitting still and paying unwavering attention to a human that is trying to get them to do something that they may or may not even like doing is definitely not natural.

Almost all dogs are going to need to be taught how to pay attention – or, more accurately, you are going to have to condition your dog so that paying attention to you is more rewarding than anything else. Then, you can start the real training.

1. Get Rid Of Distractions

You want to make this easy for your dog, so start in a quiet room in your home with no other people, pets, toys, food, etc. You want to make sure you are the most exciting thing in that room!

2. Find Out What Your Dog Likes

Think you know your dog well? have you ever stopped long enough to think about what he would prefer to do, given a choice? Knowing what your dog values allows you to pick rewards with higher values when needed, helping to ensure success.

To do this, offer your dog several things (one at a time) and see what he gets excited about the most:

Does he get more excited about food? If so, which foods in particular? My dogs will do almost anything for piece of toast – strange but true!

Toys – which toys? Squeaky ones, tug ones, fetch ones? Play with your dog and see which toys are “higher value” to him. These toys should then become “reward toys” – toys he only gets after doing what you asked of him. This makes you the bearer of good things!

3. Start Attention Training

There are many ways to work on getting more attention from your dog. Some may work better for you than others – remember to watch your dog and pay attention to his feedback. The following are just a few tips to get you started:

You want paying attention to you to be fun and exciting. If your dog is bored, he’ll get distracted (at least when first learning to paying attention). So switch it up if your dog starts to lose interest.

  • Offering Attention – in your quiet room, sit or stand and just wait for your dog to look at you. Every time he does, give him a reward. This starts to condition your dog that paying attention to you means good things. Gradually build up the duration of this eye contact before getting rewarded (this builds up the length of attention), and add in distractions when you feel he’s ready.
  • Choose to “Heel” – This exercise teaches your dog to pay attention to you even while moving (you can also use it to teach leash manners!). Start in your same quiet, no-distraction room and just walk in circles. Don’t look at your dog, don’t say his name, etc. Any time he chooses to come walk next to you and give you attention (looks at you), reward him! Again, this teaches your dog that paying attention to you is a great thing!
  • Toy Switching – If you have a dog that loves to play with toys, bring several with you into your room and start to play with one. Then, discard that one by leaving it on the ground and start to play with another toy. This will be harder for some dogs than others, but it teaches them a valuable skill – switching attention/focus. If your dog can’t learn to drop one toy and play with another, how do you expect him to stop staring at the cat and focus on you? This is a great start and it’s fun for your dog!

A few final tips about attention training:

  • Don’t add in distractions too quickly! This will cause your dog to lose focus and fail. You want to set him up for success.
  • If your dog has stopped offering to look at you and is clearly engaged in something else, you may have added too many distractions – move away or remove the distractions until your dog can focus on you.
  • For some dogs, toys are too exciting. Meaning, as soon as you bring out a toy, your dog forgets you exists and all they want is for you to throw that toy. For those dogs, at the beginning you may have more luck using treats as rewards, since the toys may prove to be a distraction themselves.
  • Don’t work at this for too long! It’s boring! Make sure you take play breaks and that you keep these training sessions short, say 10 minutes.
  • Remember to pay attention to your dog and what she is trying to tell you. If your dog is reacting to things in her environment instead of listening to you, you need to address those issues first, before you can expect undivided attention.

Good luck and happy training!

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