We’re all familiar with the struggle! One second, your dog is fully focused, the next it is chasing a squirrel or barking of another dog and there is nothing you can do to get your dog’s attention! Maybe you’re even struggling with keeping your dog’s attention during a training class? That makes it impossible to actually get anything useful out of the class, right? It’s annoying, heart-breaking, frustrating, and infuriating. It’s even embarrassing. Maybe you even end up screaming of your dog, scolding it, and in your mind desperately clinging on to your dream vision of ‘’the perfect dog,’’ that you wish it was. All in all, it’s an extremely negative experience – for both you and your dog.
Luckily!! There are a few very easy things you can do to help train your dog to be more motivated and focused on you! Many of them make a lot of sense once you hear them, but their significance is often overlooked. Here are our top 7 tips for keeping your puppy as well as older dog motivated and focused.
1) Stop Bowl Feeding
This is exactly what it sounds like. Stop feeding your dog in a bowl. Most dogs love food! When you simply put all of this amazing value in the bowl, you teach your dog that all the good stuff, all the delicious food, is only associated with that bowl. You are not a part of the food experience for the dog. If you instead started using the dog’s food allowance for training purposes you would get a dog that would associate YOU with all of the good stuff – the food. The dog would learn that it is fun to be around you and to do what you say, because it is always followed by a nice piece of food. If the dog knows that it can also simply get this food by doing absolutely nothing other than wait for it to be breakfast or dinner time, it would simply choose to do so.
Imagine this: if you had the choice of getting all of your day’s salary by working or by staying at home and doing nothing, which would you choose (assuming you don’t see your job as your dream job)? Most would just stay home, right? It’s easiest. It is the same with dogs!
Does that mean that your dog will hate you if you stop feeding it in a bowl? NO WAY! On the contrary! If you haven’t yet heard about contrafreeloading, then look it up! But in order to understand this concept imagine another small scenario:
You are given a beer, a sandwich, or something else entirely that you like every 15 minutes. You do not have to do anything at all. It is simply given to you. Well that sounds lovely! Right? Let’s say that this will happen all the time over several years. In the end, this thing that you have been given is no longer special to you, is it? Now it’s just something that is put in front of you all of the time. It loses its value. If someone then asks you to do something and offers this as a reward, it’s not really that exciting, is it? Most likely not. However, if you were not given this every 15 minutes without doing anything – if you instead had to earn it – it would taste much better, right? A beer after a long day’s work or after doing a lot of work on the house feels really good, doesn’t it? That’s because you feel like you have earned it! Dogs are the same. In fact, it has been proven that they often prefer to do something for their food rather than just getting it.
So stop bowl feeding your dog! Use the food for training and playing with your dog. Use it for sniffing games to tire your dog out and get a more calm dog. Involve yourself in your dog’s life and do something fun together instead! Every single piece of food your dog would otherwise get in a bowl, can be used to strengthen your mutual relationship, teach the dog that it is fun to be with you and do what you say. Teach the dog that it is always better to choose you over the environment. Most importantly, your dog will now have a reason to be focused – and it will WANT to stay focused.
Get your e-book on Stop Bowl Feeding here!
2) Never feed the dog before a training session
If you ARE feeding your dog using a bowl and haven’t made the switch to stopping bowl feeding yet, then here is a very important point for you to remember. If you attend a dog training class, it is very important that your dog is in a state to want to accept treats or toys from you. If you have given it breakfast, lunch, or dinner before arriving at the class, your dog is very likely to not want the food that you have in class. Why is this? Why would the dog not want this delicious food? It’s even more delicious than what it normally gets at meal times! Well, again, try to put yourself in a similar situation.
You have just filled yourself with food from a buffet – you are about to burst! Even walking might hurt a tiny bit. Then a person comes up to you and offers you a free ticket for another buffet – but it can only be used right now! Would you take it? No. You cannot eat anymore. Even if you did accept the ticket, truth be told, you wouldn’t eat very much from that buffet if anything at all – at least not without waiting for a little bit.
Your dog is not able to wait for the food to be digested. You have chosen when it was fed, and now you are deciding that it has to eat more food again! No wonder that the dog is not motivated! So never feed your dog before a class! Never!
3) Have separate toys for playing alone and for training
If you use toys for training purposes, you might have noticed that the dog’s favourite toy from home does not always work in a class setting. Why is that? It’s the dog’s favourite toy!! It’s simply because the toy is not that interesting when you are in an interesting environment. Again, all of the fun the dog has with this toy is at home without you. It is fun to play with when there is nothing else to do. But if you are a very outgoing dog who loves to play with other dogs, why would you choose to play with this boring toy that you always play with at home anyways? You can always play with that when you get back home!
If you want your dog to LOVE the toys you use in class, be sure to only ever use them for training. That way, the dog knows that it cannot just choose to play with this later. When it only ever sees the toy for training purposes, it has a certain magic about the toy. It becomes a special toy! Therefore, make sure to keep the toy magic by not having it lying around at home where the dog can see it or play with it. It should only ever see the dog when you are playing and training together! Get your new toys by clicking on the picture below!
4) Fulfil the dog’s NEEDS before training
Make sure that your dog has had a chance to go to the toilet before class. Let it have a small sniff around somewhere. Offer it water before and during class. There really is nothing worse than trying to work with a full bladder that is about to burst! Or if you’re really thirsty, it is not ideal for you to be doing any kind of physical exercise. Again, dog’s are not that different to us. They too, find it difficult to concentrate with a full bladder, or when they are thirsty. If they have not had the chance to sniff around either, they might just be too excited for focusing too. So always make sure that you have met all of your dog’s needs before asking anything of him. Your training is a teamwork exercise! So take care of your teammate!
5) Find what motivates your dog the most
No two dogs are 100% alike. It is therefore impossible to predict exactly which treats you should be using or which kinds of toys your dog likes. It is even more difficult predicting whether the same treats or toys will work in a distracting environment like a class setting or a public park. You can therefore do a fun little exercise to figure out which treats or toys your dog prefers in different environments.
Find 5 different bowls and put different treats in each of them. Cover them with plastic film and stick holes in it or a grid so that they cannot reach the treats but easily smell and see them. Now, put the bowl up on a row and let your dog sniff them out. The one that your dog uses the most time at, is probably the treats that your dog prefers. Let the dog get a couple of treats from the bowl it chose and repeat the experiment, but switch the bowls around so they are standing in a different order. If the dog chooses the same bowl again, it is possible to assume that it chose these treats deliberately. Try the same experiment in a different environment. You can do the same experiment with toys! With toys, you can also try to animate them yourself, one at a time, and see which ones the dog is most likely to engage with you with.
6) Ditch the dry treats!
For training purposes or when you are in distracting environments it is a good idea to have REALLY high value treats. High value treats are the kind of treats that your dog prefers over all other treats. Usually, this is strong smelling and meaty treats. As a professional dog trainer, I often see dogs in class who struggle with being motivated and focused. I then take a look at what the owner has to offer the dog. More often than not, the owners who struggle the most with focus bring either the dog’s normal dry kibble or some other dry treats shaped like bones (gravy bones, I believe they are called) and similar. The owners say that they don’t understand because the dog normally LOVES these treats at home. However, the dog’s home environment might not provide as many other distractions that are potentially more interesting than the treats. I will always recommend using meaty treats such as sausages, chicken, or ham, or maybe even pieces of cheese for training. These are special treats that the dog don’t normally get at home for a simple ‘sit’ or ‘’down’, and they are SUPER tasty for a dog! If you want your dog to choose you over the environment, you need to be more interesting than the environment! Dry treats can work for some dogs, but most dogs that I see in classes work better for sausage or cheese.
7) Lastly – Make sure your dog is NOT overweight!
If your dog is overweight you might struggle even more with keeping its focus. However, this is not the only reason you should check if your dog is overweight. A dog that is overweight is putting a lot more pressure onto their joints, muscles, and whole body including the organs! Overweight dogs generally live shorter lives as well. I’ve heard many people over the years argue that their old 50 kg Labrador lived until 12 years of age and that they therefore think the dog lived a good life. I am certain that those people have never meant for anything less than giving their dog everything it needed – but that same dog might have lived for 16 years if it had been a healthy dog. The dog cannot say if anything hurts either, and not all dogs actually show their pain to anyone unless it’s between 7 and 10 on a 1-10 scale. If you are in doubt whether your dog is overweight, ask your vet for an honest opinion or seek advice from a trainer who KNOWS about dog weight. Remember, if you want your dog to do any form of exercise, even just running on the beach or in the park, they should be a little lighter than other dogs to not risk injuries.