Engagement begins training process
by Augusta Farley
Mar 21, 2013 | 1103 views | 0 0 comments | 46 46 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Remember sitting in elementary school chatting away before class? Suddenly the teacher would say, “Boys and girls, one-two-three, eyes on me.”

A well-trained class would go silent immediately and focus on the teacher, ready to learn. Keep this illustration in mind as you train your dog, “Lady.”

Engagement is both the key to teaching and learning. A good teacher gets and keeps a student’s attention easily. The student gradually learns to pay attention and stay on task.

For some teachers and learners, this comes naturally. For those of us who find it more challenging, these skills can be learned.

How do you start? Early training is two-way communication that reinforces the concept that you will give Lady something she wants in exchange for doing something for you. (Find my previous column on rewards on Page 15 of the Oct. 25 Irrigator “Rewards fix actions in dog’s memory” or at http://bit.ly/12BP0gc.)

Remember the day you first saw your dog wag its tail and you gave it a hug? That is two-way communication: Your dog wanted you to pay attention, and you rewarded it with a hug. Two-way communication benefits both you and your dog, leading to great engagement and attention.

I believe there are two important behaviors all dogs should master that simultaneously teach engagement and the two-way reward system.

One is being able to respond to an attention-getting sound, and the other is eye contact.

Because dogs don’t understand words as concepts, but rather as auditory signals, my first efforts to get Lady’s attention will not be words but rather hand-clapping or staccato noises — kissy sounds, tongue clicking, “tssst,” and “pup, pup, pup” — with the intent of getting her attention.

At first, I always make sure that her attention is rewarded by something she wants.

I know I’ve been successful when I can get and keep Lady’s attention. I’ll ask Lady to stay engaged with me until I release her back to play. She isn’t allowed to dismiss me.

Only when I can get and keep her attention at a low level of distraction do I start adding words that have behavioral meaning to me, such as “sit,” “come,” “leave it” and “let’s go.”

Next, I work on eye contact by watching whether Lady gives it naturally or as a result of prior training. If I miss Lady’s efforts to pay attention or I fail to reward this behavior, she will assume that attention is not important. Ignoring me comes next.

When eye contact doesn’t come naturally, I teach it.

After getting Lady’s attention and asking her to come close, I stand still and watch her. Remember, she needs to be anticipating a reward at this moment — initially a food reward works best. I wait until she looks up out of frustration for not getting a reward immediately. Reward the eye contact!

If Lady doesn’t look up and is getting fussy, I make a kissy sound. Again, reward eye contact.

Sometimes it helps to start with the dog sitting. Later, I will teach Lady the word “eyes” for the eye contact behavior.

Communication and training start with engagement and eye contact.

Next time we’ll work on impulse control as one of the core competencies and incorporate attention-getting sounds and eye contact.

Augusta Farley raises, trains and competes with Belgian Malinois dogs and runs Best Friends Pet Resort & Canine Academy in Patterson. She also hosts a Patterson-based nonprofit dog shelter, Westside Animals for Adoption, on her property.

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