Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

It seems that the more dog training evolves, the more buzzwords start floating around the Internet.

Trainers and textbooks coin new and sexy terms to explain their dog’s behavior, and handlers latch on to new concepts as dog training gets more and more progressive.

After a particularly controversial article I wrote on the reliance of academics in dog training and the use of fancy terminology, most would be surprised to learn that I’m all for the use of jargon and buzzwords……IF it makes us more effective and efficient. Where jargon starts to rub me wrong, is when you have to spend hours reciting a dog training dictionary just to be able to teach a lesson. In those cases, I think you should probably choose more accessible words. But hey, that’s just me.

Anyhow, sometimes it seems a bit of lingo takes hold and in no time flat, I’m left seeing article after article and course after course flooding dog training communities, centered upon these new and “progressive” buzzwords.

One of those buzzwords, which happens to be flooding my feed at this very moment is “Engagement”.

Now listen. Yes, I just put out a course on the topic. And yes, it’s something I feel strongly every dog owner should work on. And yes I USE the word “engagement” – like I said, sometimes training jargon can be effective.

But here’s the thing.

As I watch this concept fly around the Internet at lightning speed, and as I watch trainers and handlers post videos of their engagement work, I’ve come to realize one very important fact.

Very few people actually understand engagement. I mean REALLY understand it.

In fact, more often than not, engagement is confused with a wide variety of other behaviors.

So I thought I’d take a moment to clarify.

Here are a few things engagement is NOT…

  1. Your Dog Barking at You – I see this all the time. Dog owners inadvertently teach their dog to bark excitedly to get them engaged. I’m sure they’ve seen other trainers ask for barking during engagement work, so they put it to work. But instead of asking for engagement, they simply reward frustrated barking. They rev the dog up, get them really amped, and then, as all that excess energy explodes into frustrated barking, they call it engagement. Listen, asking a dog to get amped and letting them fly off the handle isn’t engagement. And let’s face it, if you have to repeatedly ask for engagement, or ask your dog to get excited, you might want to rethink your strategies.
  2. Playing Tug – A LOT of people confuse tug play with engagement. They will play a rigorous game of tug-of-war and convince themselves that their dog is now engaged. But in fact, tug play is not engagement. It is tug play. And while it can absolutely be used to get engagement, the two shouldn’t be confused.
  3. A “Watch” Command – A lot of people teach their dog a simple “Watch” command, cueing their dog to look up at their face. As the dog complies with this request, it can be easy to think they are now fully engaged, when really they are simply complying with a command. A watch command is not engagement. It is a learned and most importantly, cued behavior that doesn’t always address the dog’s actual state of mind or desire to be engaged.
  4. A Recall – It can be VERY easy to confuse engagement with a recall or “come” command. Rewarding a dog for being engaged and rewarding a dog for coming to you can very closely resemble one another. However, a recall is a far cry different from having an engaged dog.

So what is engagement?

I suppose every trainer has a different idea as to what engagement really is. But to me, the concept of engagement is a simple one.

An engaged dog is exactly that…engaged.

They are committed, constantly PUSHING for the training that is about to occur. An engaged dog doesn’t want the game to end. They are engaged with YOU because through you, fun happens. (This is important so take note.)

They aren’t engaged because you told them to be. And they aren’t engaged because you commanded it of them. There can be no force to engagement, nor can it be a request.

An engaged dog isn’t fixated on their toy or another reward, losing “engagement” the moment they’ve won their prize or the moment the reward is off the table.

They will win a toy and immediately bring it back for more play. They won’t check out with their prize and retreat to a corner of the yard to enjoy it. They want to play with YOU…because let’s face it, you are FUN!

An engaged dog will push you for training to happen. He doesn’t want to engage with his environment. Good smells, people, other dogs, and whatever other distractions are present disappear as soon as real engagement happens. You become your dog’s world. (And let me tell you, you’d better do something with that power. If you become your dog’s world, and that world is boring, you’ll lose engagement more quickly than you got it.)

A motivated and engaged dog MAY bark out of excitement. Sometimes it’s a side effect. And sometimes people will teach their dog to bark as a precursor to engagement. But a barking dog isn’t always an engaged dog. And in fact, while it works for some, barking is NOT something I personally like to use in my engagement work as I’d rather my dog hang on to his energy for the training that’s about to happen.

Most importantly, an engaged dog doesn’t have to repeatedly be asked to engage. He will PUSH you to engage with him. Not the other way around. So if you are constantly amping your dog, revving him up, and always asking for engagement, you might want to go back to the drawing board.

Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

Most of the time, my dog Shank is an engaged dog (trust me, he wasn’t always that way). In fact, we regularly get scolded at training because he has TOO MUCH focus and engagement with me.

Here’s how it looks.

When I get out of my truck (after he airs which is part of our routine), he is immediately staring up at me. I don’t ask for this. He offers it. As we walk to the field, unless given a formal command, he at times will spin around, cutting me off and walking backward, pushing me to play.

When we get to the field, he asks with his eyes and his body “What’s next?!”

The environment doesn’t exist when we are working. He rarely tunes me out (unless I ask too much of him which I’ve been known to do at times – hey, I’m only human!)

When we walk off the field, he tries everything in his power to get the training to continue. He pushes me to keep going. Begging me for just one more round.

My other dog, however, is NOT an engaged dog. His environment is better than me. He hasn’t fully learned the games yet so I find myself regularly competing with the world for his attention. He likes to play with me, but there are so many things that he finds more appealing.

He is a work in progress. He is learning. And he is getting better every day. We have a road ahead of us. But we will get there.

Creating real engagement isn’t easy. It isn’t something that happens overnight. And it certainly isn’t something you can teach and forget about.

Real engagement is something you have to build. And it’s absolutely something you have to maintain.

Now, I can’t tell you step by step how to get an engaged dog in this blog alone. But I can offer you a jumping off point.

Simply reward your dog when they offer engagement. Give them a treat or toy when they push you to play or train. Capture the moments they choose you over their environment and celebrate them. And be FUN. Your dog and his engagement will thank you!

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    12 replies to "Are You Building Engagement or Missing the Mark?"

    • Mary

      Excellent. I, too, have been hearing this word bandied about and being used for different behaviors. Usually it is for the dog paying attention. So, I now took a look at my dogs. (I do not teach them to be engaged, at least not on purpose.) My dogs run to the training room and look to see if I’m coming and check to see if treats have been put in the usual holding spot. If I say “want to go train” then run to the room. They never get tired of training. I have learned to quit while I’m ahead, leaving them wanting more. Then I looked up the word engagement. The dictionary definition is: the act of becoming engaged to be married : the state of being engaged to be married, employment, appointments as in “He was engaged to give several speeches”. So, yeah. My dogs must be engaged because they want to be with me all the time and love to work with me. Engagement appears not to be a “learned behavior” but a state of mind.
      Thank you for another great article.

    • Tammy

      Hey Meagan, I love your articles, and I think you have an intuition that most don’t and you repeatedly hit it on the head. But in this instance I have to respectually disagree with one facet of this article on this occasion. I hope you don’t mind me explaining my point of view:).

      I do agree with most you are saying, no doubt, I certainly wouldn’t consider barking true engagement, however it is definitely another option to incorporate into some dog’s training picture by using it as a tool to help build motivation. I agree a wired maliniois it may not be the best option for, but for a dog that needs a bit more encouragement, I would recommend using, and I have.

      I’m sure you are aware, that a lot of trainers will pair barking with a verbal saying to indicate to the dogs that they have a choice to do some training/play if the dogs are up for it, hence the question form, i.e. ‘You wanna do some work?’ It’s not obligatory, it’s simply a choice. Its up to us to use that term correctly and only when the dog has given us engagement by truly being into us with no obligatory term such as ‘look’ attached.

      The KEY is to only use the cue, when the dog is fully engaged with you, they are in control of turning you on or keeping you stagnant. When the dog is motivated to work, through the release of barking it has a transfer of value affect into our training or engagement work. We’ve never mis-labeled barking as engagement, it’s more of a ‘power up’.

      I would always recommend the dog is in control of this process, you wait until the dog pushes you to work before you give the ‘do you wanna do some work’ question. This is vital. So the picture then becomes ENGAGEMENT>MOTIVATION>ENGAGEMENT. This motivation is then transferred into our engagement work.

      I’ve personally seen flat pancake dogs come alive through the use of barking incorporated into their training routine, including my own. A dog and handler I’m teaching currently have adopted barking as an insertion into engagement work and you can’t wipe the smile off her face. Previously her dog was aloof, there was little bond or working/training relationship and understandlably the handler was depleted. She’d been doing engagement till the cows come home but nothing has helped more than incorporating barking to build motivation into the mix.

      Marek Urban, Vit Glisnik and Gabina Macounova all use ‘barking’ to build motivation, and empower the dog. Most consider these guys all Role-models in the sport of IPO.

      So just to reify, I agree it is not TRUE engagement, but I do respectfully disagree with dismissing its importance in the overall obedience training picture for some dogs. It is still an important facet to be considered for those dogs who need more motivation in their work. So recommending throwing away a facet of training that could potentially help these dogs, seems like such a wasted tool.

      I hope you don’t mind me disagreeing with your point, we can’t always agree hey ;). I’m still a GIANT fan of your articles 🙂

      • Meagan Karnes

        I absolutely love this response. I love when folks can shed light on new perspectives and disagree in a graceful and kind manner. I love sharing different backgrounds of experience. So THANK YOU for this. And THANK YOU for being respectful. It is a breath of fresh air for sure!

        Yes – absolutely my point – barking is not engagement as many have confused the two.

        I see your points and I very much appreciate them. And in fact, I know many people who incorporate barking into their routines to rev their dogs up. My first competition dog was trained in this manner so I’m quite familiar. Where I see the disconnect is when folks imitate experienced trainers, without fully understanding how to apply barking to fire a dog up…and then how to use that fire in their training, confusing things like barking for engagement.

        While barking is not personally my cup of tea, I’m absolutely thrilled that it works well for others 🙂 Despite the fact that I don’t use it any longer, I didn’t mean to discredit it as a tool for building motivation. I was more referencing the common phenomenon of trainers revving a disengaged dog up, repeatedly asking them to bark, and calling it engagement. Then the dog is left gassed, and frustrated and engagement doesn’t improve.

        I want to ensure that people don’t lose sight of the fact that the tools for building motivation are not in fact real engagement as so many only see a small piece of the puzzle.

        And btw, I absolutely love your caveat that the dog has to push for engagement first. Most people miss this key point….constantly cueing their dog to engage, or revving them up in order to get them to engage. Great and very important point!

    • Tammy

      Ah excellent Meagan! Thank you for being so gracious in your response. I completely agree ????

    • udo scheerbarth

      Wow what insight Meagan you opened my eyes to so many things. This was a really good article I have been working in the dark for so long I can`t believe it. So many people around me also. All
      we were taught was obedience. Now I know how much my engagement sucks. With your course on engagement I will over come this problem. Thanks!

    • Crystal

      This is a really good article, but I’ve got a question since you seem to be pretty active here! I’m currently raising my first dog. I live in the middle of nowhere by myself so I pretty much did the “go big or go home” and got a working line GSD that was bred in Germany and born in the US.

      Right now he’s 8.5 months old, and for the past 6 weeks I’ve spent a lot of time reading up on engagement and how to build that more with lots and lots of practice. So my question is this… What is a reasonable expectation in terms of time invested does the dog require (on average) before they have the level of engagement you describe in your dog? Is there an age where this starts to click more and faster? When I see dogs with that level of engagement in videos, I just don’t know how old the dogs in the videos are, and it’s never quite clear how long it roughly takes to get there.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Great question! And really, I’d say, it depends on the dog. With my first dog, I was able to turn his engagement around in a short time, working short sessions daily. With my other dog, it’s taking a little longer. He was a year old when I got him so he has a significant reinforcement history. That, and he’s not as packy naturally as the other dog. So I’d say anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months would be a good estimate. Younger dogs, as they are essentially clean slates, are easier than older dogs with any sort of reinforcement history.

        • Crystal

          Thanks for the reply! I think I’m on the right track, but it’s only something we started recently as opposed to the day I brought him home.

          • Meagan Karnes

            It’s never too late 🙂 Keep up the awesome work!

    • Lelsie B

      I have a 6 year old neutered male and a 2 year old spayed female. It seems that ever since I got my female, my male’s engagement level has dropped off significantly. She interrupts play, etc., I try not to let her get in the way, but my male seems to just be saying to me, “it’s not worth it, I don’t want to get involved, you play with her”. Is there a way to keep them both engaged and train them together? Or do I have to train separately always? Thanks.

    • FIORELLA Marante

      Hi there! I have recently come across this post and your blog and it Is so informative, thank you for sharing great content! This article really caught my attention because I am having lack of engagement issues with my 10 month old working line gsd. He is my first working and schutzhund dog and so far I am having fun learning about the sport and I am eager to learn more and become a better handler. The issue I am having is at home of course he is super engaged has great ball drive and could play all day incorporating OB in the sessions and never wants to stop. BUT when I take him to club I am fighting for engagement and the ball his highest value reward he is just kind of blah about it and is sniffing the ground or looking at people and dogs that may be around. He isn’t a vey packy dog so I don’t see a natural desire to please in him too much. My trainer and I have been working on engagement as well but any other tips on how we can overcome this? How can I work on this outside of club? Is this normal? I am frustrated because it is such a drastic change from his home drive. Thank you!

      • Meagan Karnes

        I’d focus on taking him to all sorts of new places, get out, play with the ball for a few minutes and then put him up without any training. Keep it simple, lower your expectations, and just play. You can choose to let him acclimate or not, which basically means allow him to sniff and get his fill of a small section of the environment before playing. I typically do not. I just play for a few minutes and then head home. Practice as often as possible and always end with him wanting more. You can limit access to toy play at home as well in order to improve it’s value. Sounds like the environment is stealing his attention a bit which is causing the decrease in enthusiasm.

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