Ian’s dogs—Maggie, Molly and Jake—display various levels of attentiveness while they’re together on the trail. Maggie looks back every few seconds, as though she’s afraid he’ll disappear. Molly’s mainly interested in Ian when she’s thirsty. Jake checks in from time to time, typically when he’s startled by an unusual sound or comes to a bend in the trail. When Ian calls them, they all run joyfully to him. In response to their names, each pauses and looks toward him, suspending activity while waiting for more information. Each has also been trained to look at him in response to the cue “watch.” Though these dogs have different levels of natural attentiveness, they are uniformly skilled at responding to cues for attention.
Ian can hike with his dogs off-leash, confident that they will pay attention to him if he asks them to, even though at least one and sometimes two of them are less interested in him than in the world around them. Only Maggie consistently gives him her attention spontaneously, but they all attend to him on cue. Spontaneous attention and attention that’s given on cue are both valuable.
Inborn or Learned
Few dogs are as naturally attentive as most of us wish; if yours isn’t, don’t feel bad, don’t feel guilty and for goodness sake, don’t wonder what you did wrong! Your dog, like most dogs, just isn’t inclined that way. For some guardians, that’s a good thing. Plenty of people prefer dogs with their own interests who can amuse themselves and aren’t staring at them expectantly, riveted by their every action.
While a strong relationship can help with attention issues, I’m not suggesting that a good relationship will guarantee a high level of attentiveness: it won’t. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and if your dog is not highly attentive in all situations, it certainly doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed or in any way lacking. It just means that for whatever reason, your dog is focusing on other aspects of the environment.
Many people find that their dogs are so engrossed in the environment and all its wonderful smells that getting them to pay attention outdoors feels like swimming upstream. Though such “nose to the ground” dogs are indeed among the most challenging when it comes to working on attentiveness, many of them are actually attending to their people without obvious signs of doing so. It’s common for those with dogs who are particularly responsive to the environment to note that their dogs always know where they are when they’re out and about. However, the dogs’ top priority in that context isn’t interacting with people, it’s interacting with the environment. They tend to show their affiliation in other ways at other times, and that’s where the strength of the relationship is more obvious to the casual observer.
Many factors affect your relationship, including your respective personalities and your interactions over time. If your dog associates you with treats, enjoyable training, massages, outings, toys and games, you’re more likely to have his attention. In the best of relationships, there’s also an intangible quality: some individuals hit it off in an indefinable, magical way. Strong bonds of love are often made of those special and inexplicable connections.
If a relationship is damaged or not very strong, the dog may give more attention to someone else. Some of the saddest cases in my practice have been those in which the dog isn’t that interested in the person. For example, a man moved back in with his mother and spent tons of time walking and playing with her dog. The dog adored him, but took virtually no notice of the woman. Multiple times each day, she cued him to hug her, which meant jumping up on her, putting his paws on her shoulders and staying that way while she squeezed him. She wanted affection from the dog, but the dog clearly disliked it.
We improved the relationship between the woman and her dog by having her engage with the dog in ways that were fun and satisfying to him. Once she had developed the habit of taking him out for walks, playing fetch with him daily and massaging him afterward, he was drawn to her, and the amount of attention he gave her increased accordingly. She stopped asking him for hugs, and he spontaneously cuddled up beside her. She no longer had to beg for his attention or affection.
Putting Attention on Cue
The problem many of us have with a dog who is not responsive to cues, especially outside, is not so much a matter of devotion but of training. For most dogs, learning a “pay attention” cue in the face of a whole world of wonder is essentially a difficult, high-level trick and must be taught as such. Yes, some dogs learn this quickly and thoroughly without too much trouble, but that’s unusual. For most dogs, expect topquality responses only after consistent, long-term training efforts.
In the larger scheme of things, a cue to pay attention is essential because it is the basis of all training. You can teach a dog just about anything if you have his attention, but it’s virtually impossible if you don’t. Asking for a dog’s attention is a top priority for professional trainers, which is why it is often the first skill taught in classes or private lessons.
This is especially valuable for dogs who don’t frequently offer their attention spontaneously. For naturally attentive dogs, attention training is largely about putting a behavior that frequently happens on cue. Teaching dogs to give attention when they don’t consistently offer it on their own requires more time and effort because you have to teach the behavior and associate it with a cue.
The two most common cues for attention are “watch” and the dog’s name. “Watch” tells a dog to look at your face, and it’s a great way to keep a dog from paying attention to things that cause him to act in an undesirable way. Saying the dog’s name lets him know that he should pay attention to you and wait for more information. Once you have your dog’s attention, it’s easier for him to respond to other cues, including “down,” “stay” and “come,” or simply to follow you in a new direction on a walk. It’s important to reinforce these behaviors so your dog’s glad he did what you asked. If he learns that he’ll receive a treat or have a chance to play for giving you his attention in response to the cue “watch” or to his name, he will be more likely to give you his attention when asked in the future.
Paying attention will be easier for your dog in some contexts than in others. Typically, dogs are more likely to pay attention inside than outside, and when there are no distractions—no squirrels or cooking aromas on the breeze.
Like any other skill, giving attention on cue requires practice and takes time to teach. Gradually working toward giving attention in increasingly challenging environments is a good strategy. Improving the relationship so that the dog is more inclined to pay attention will also improve your dog’s responsiveness to you.
Ideally, dogs keep track of where their person is. It’s a sign of maturity to be able to sniff in the grass, romp with a canine buddy and still occasionally check in. Though dogs with certain natural tendencies are more disposed to do this, others can be trained to act the same way.
When I’m teaching dogs to exhibit this behavior, I do it in places that allow them to be safely off-leash, where they can wander and sniff to their hearts’ content. When the dog is in his own world and not attending to me at all, I position myself so that I can see the dog but he can’t see me. When he looks up and seems just a little concerned, I call him to come, reinforcing him for his successful search. (If he becomes stressed, I come out of my hiding spot so he can see me, and still reinforce him for coming to me.)
This is a good way to perfect recalls and teach your dog that it’s wise to keep track of you, but it only works with dogs who are connected enough to care when they think for a moment that their person is lost. It is not helpful with aloof dogs or those who are completely unperturbed by your absence, and it’s just cruel to disappear on a clingy, nervous dog. Reserve this technique for those who are stable enough to handle your absence and connected enough to care—which, fortunately, is the majority of dogs.
Remember, when we talk about our dogs paying attention to us, we are really talking about two things: spontaneous attention and attention given on cue. There are many ways to improve both kinds of attentiveness, but that doesn’t mean you can change a dog’s essential nature. All the training in the world isn’t going to turn an aloof and independent dog or a dog who is wildly distracted by the smells of the great outdoors into one who is compulsive about checking in and never lets you out of sight. It is, however, possible to teach any dog to respond properly to the cue “watch” and to his name, and to come when called.
It’s also possible, and desirable, to strengthen your relationship with your dog to increase his attentiveness to you. The more fun and satisfying your interactions are, the more likely your dog is to give you his attention spontaneously or on cue.
Photograph Andrii Muzyka