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Learning to Learn


Training for Attention


Before you can effectively train your dog, you need to make sure his attention is focused on you. Training for attention simply means that your dog will be taught to look at you on-cue -- hopefully conditioned to the point where all other distractions become "background noise".


Believe it or not, this is a very simple procedure, and should be the first thing taught -- once you have his attention, you can teach everything else.


Using some really yummy treats (liverwurst or cheese), start in the house, with no distractions. Simply have the dog follow the treat until his eyes meet yours -- when that happens, treat & praise. Do this several times (maybe 15 or 20), until your dog meets your eyes when you reach for a treat. Then, add the cue (command). You can use "attention", "watch me", whatever.

Every day, back off on the value of the treats used for the 'average' responses (use dry cereal or kibble for these), and only use the Really Good Stuff for those exceptional responses (those ones where it feels like he's trying to bore holes into you with his eyes).

Practice this for a couple of days, until your dog's eyes meet yours when you give the cue, without using a treat for him to follow. At this time, it's time to generalize the command. Use treats again, and teach it in every room in your house, then add distractions. Then, generalize it to the outside, first with no distractions, then with distractions. It usually takes less than a week to teach this cue, working 5 to 10 minutes, twice daily.

  • The following step-by-step list will help you past most hurdles you may encounter during these exercises. You may progress as quickly or as slowly as you would like. The important thing is that you do the steps IN ORDER.

  • Do not skip steps.

  • Do at least 10 repetitions at each step. If this skill is difficult for your dog, do more. Do not do fewer than 10 repetitions at each step, and don’t push your dog past the point where it’s FUN for your dog to learn.

  • If your dog is “bored,” either use a higher-value reinforcer, or consider that you’ve worked him past his abilities – always leave the dog wanting MORE.

  • Treat after EVERY click. Never click without treating (that’s LYING), and never treat without clicking (that will diminish the value of the clicker as a secondary reinforcer).

  • Toss (or drop) the treat, if necessary, to set the dog up for the next repetition.

  • It is extremely important to practice this behavior in new locations. The more locations you visit, the more easily the behavior is generalized.

  • Keep a clicker handy, so that you can click your dog for freely-offered behaviors – then, find a reward for him!! It’s not imperative that the treat IMMEDIATELY follow the click – it can follow a few seconds later, after you’ve gotten it from the fridge. The important thing is that the dog hears the CLICK during the behavior. Smile and tell the dog how wonderful he is.

  • When adding distractions, don’t forget to increase the value of the reward… use popcorn, grapes, cheerios and the like in the house, but use liverwurst, sliced hotdog, and cheese with greater distractions.

Bear in mind that the steps are only OUTLINES… I highly suggest that you work with very tiny pieces of behavior, moving ever closer to the goal behavior. This is called “successive approximation” – moving successively closer to the goal, in small increments.

Week 1


Attention -- In the living room, kneel down with your dog. Hold an especially yummy treat in your fist and offer it to the dog. Allow the dog to sniff and lick and try to get the treat, but don’t give it to him. The *instant* he pauses in his assault, click and offer the treat.

Repeat the above step. This time, click when the dog has ignored the treat for a full second.

Hold a yummy treat in your closed fist. Hold your fist out away from your body. Wait until the dog glances at you, then click. Even an eye flicker in your direction is enough.

Repeat the above step in the kitchen.

Again, in the kitchen, hold a treat away from your body, and click for eye contact. This time, wait for half a second of eye contact before clicking. Note: Your dog may be uncomfortable offering eye contact. You may have to do a set of repetitions with just a quarter of a second of eye contact, then half a second. This is all right – eye contact is a matter of trust. Do not progress until your dog will hold eye contact for half a second.

Week 2


Attention -- Repeat the above step, clicking for a full second of eye contact.  Remember to practice in different rooms in your hourse.

Week 3


Attention -- Move to the backyard. At this point, it’s not necessary to hold a treat in your fist. Simply wait for, and click for, eye contact. For this set of repetitions, click for just a glance.

Week 4


Attention -- Repeat the above step, clicking for half a second of eye contact.

Week 5

Phase two – Take it on the road


In this phase, you will “take it on the road” so the dog learns that the commands learned in the first weeks mean the same thing as they do at home, even in new, distracting situations.


  • Choose locations where you can be far away from distractions, but can gradually move closer while working on each exercise.

  • Keep the dog on a regular six-foot leash, and stand in a boring place where he can’t reinforce himself, at first. You want him to figure out that *you* are the most exciting thing in his environment.

  • Be patient. At the first location, your dog may be more interested in sniffing the ground than in working… initially. Let him sniff around a bit, then ask for a sit (for example, don’t ask a beagle to offer anything besides sniffing, if your first chosen spot is in grass… start him out on cement, get some repetitions under his belt, then work toward grass… if you visit a new location each evening, you’ll find that the time it takes for him to focus on you decreases very quickly, with practice – and, there’s nothing wrong in letting him have a 5-minute sniff-fest in return for 5 minutes of sitting exercises!

  • In these exercises, you’ll combine the “let’s go” with the “heel”, so that the dog will learn that there is a difference between the two. The difference, again, is that the “let’s go” is used to signal loose-leash only (the dog is allowed to walk anywhere he likes, so long as the lead remains loose, and is allowed to sniff the ground, greet people and other dogs, and enjoy his walk!), while the “heel” is a very focused, stringent exercise… the dog must remain in strict position, with attention focused on the handler.


Repeat the sequences in the first 3 weeks above, in new surroundings. Try to move to a new location each day, so that your dog has the opportunity to generalize to lots of new places – remember that every change in environment changes the learning environment, and this means that a change in rooms, houses, neighborhoods – even the person on the end of his leash – will change things for your dog enough that he may become confused! If this happens, simply lower your criteria, and reinforce him at a lower level. Keep the rate of reinforcement high, so that his interest is maintained.




Brenda Rushman CCBC



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