I was working with a client the other day…

She has a wonderful dog. One that is sweet, social, fun and outgoing…one of those dogs I’d label a total “party girl”.

But when she spots another dog, her behavior paints a different story. 

Barking, pulling, lunging and showing her teeth, this dog has all of the local park goers keeping their distance, concerned about the seemingly “aggressive” dog’s behavior, and worried about what will happen if she breaks free from her owner’s grasp. 

Her owners are amazing and committed. And as a result, she’s come a long way in training, and most of the reactivity is resolved. But there are still some tiny loose ends to tie up. Still some minor reactive outbursts here and there.

Dog trainer, Meagan Karnes walks Malinois while in sight of a reactive dog.

Her owner was practicing one of the techniques we taught her when another dog appeared on the path behind us. 

It was a Retriever mix, and he was pulling on the lead.

Things were going well as she maintained her dog’s focus and attention.  

But as the oncoming dog got closer, and as he began to pull and strain to get to us, something changed. 

The dog in training’s ears perked up and she began to pick up her pace slightly.

It was a telltale sign that she had spotted the dog and was uncomfortable, and intervention was necessary to prevent a reaction. 

The owner’s response to the change in her dog’s behavior was instinctual…

Something that most dog owners do when their dog checks out.

Rather than getting her dog’s attention back, and rather than leaning on her training, she instead followed her dog’s lead, and looked at the dog too. 

She shifted focus away from her dog (and her training!), and to the dog that was approaching. 

And in that moment, realizing that they were in this together, the dog at the end of her leash disengaged entirely, pulled a bit and began to bark. 

Reactive or not, our dogs check out from time to time. 

They spot something in the environment, “selective hearing” takes hold, and they forget we even exist. 

And in those moments when they get locked onto something, we have a tendency to freeze up…

To stop what we are doing, and to look at what our dog is looking at…

To try to assess what’s approaching and what we need to do. 

And then, once we get our bearings, we either pull on our dog…

Or coax or beg them for their attention. 

But these tactics, the ones that we instinctually use, especially in situations of stress, are regularly working against us. 

I mean, why disengage from your dog when you WANT them to engage with you most? 

Instead of disengaging and scanning the environment, or coaxing your dog to try to win their attention back, try this…

  1. Focus on Your Dog – Your dog will never focus on you, if you are busy scoping out what’s approaching. Lead by example and give your dog your full attention. Your dog is the only thing you’re really in control of anyway.
  2. Stay quiet – Unless you are CERTAIN your dog will listen to your instructions, stay silent. Giving cues your dog isn’t going to listen to is only going to devalue those cues. Not to mention, any unproductive chatter can actually encourage your dog to check out – after all, they know exactly where you are and what you’re doing! And let’s be honest, does your dog REALLY understand the difference between your encouragement when they’re checked out, and praise? 
  3. Ditch your dog – Rather than standing right next to your dog, where they can track you in their peripheral vision, instead, slowly move behind them. Not only will they be more inclined to turn and face you, as they want to know where you went (they can’t see or hear you any more) but when they do finally focus, they’ll be forced to turn away from that distraction that was working so well to steal their attention.  
  4. Reward! – If your dog does disengage from things in their environment, CELEBRATE them. Offer their favorite treat, and don’t forget the praise! 

Listen, I get it. When our dog spots something, we want to know what it is. We want to be aware of our environment so that we can better manage it. So that we know what’s headed our way and so that we are not caught off guard. 

But disengaging from your dog the moment they check out…

When they need your attention the most…

That’s setting you both up to fail. 

So rather than following your dog’s lead, get their attention back, and reward them. And use the time when they are en route to, or eating their treat to briefly look at the environment to make an assessment about where to go next. 

By getting strategic about when you scope out the environment, and when your dog has your full focus, your training will be more effective, and your dog will be more inclined to focus and engage. 

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.

    5 replies to "Don’t trust your gut: 4 steps to getting your dog’s attention when they check out"

    • Lisa Rerup


      Thank you I enjoyed reading your blog regarding the 4 steps when your dog checks out.

      Will definitely give the step behind the dog a try.

    • AjBmal

      As one who has made every single instinctive misstep, I found this article utterly fascinating and absolutely true. It will be difficult to implement — going against instinct always is — but essential to do. Thanks!!

    • Debi

      Such great advice! It’s so hard to stay focused when stressed about your dogs reaction. I’m going to share this with a few of my rescue dog owners that struggle with their dogs reactivity.

    • Michelle

      Thank you for the great advice on working with a reactive dog . I am one of those owners that is more than likely driving her reactivity. The other issue is she barks incessantly. Do you have any advice on how to break this or at least reduce it?

    • Dave swiffen

      When on a narrow path when a dog approaches I get my dog to sit and stand in front of her when the dog gets close my dog rears up shaking her head trying to get off her leed you don’t have much room what’s the best thing to do

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