Take Control of Your Walks

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IMG_0499The sliding doors of Tractor Supply whooshed open, and the heat from the day rushed inside as if in an attempt to shelter itself from the blistering sun. As I stepped through the entryway, the puppy I had in tow launched to the end of my leash, thrilled to be in a new place, surrounded by all of the new people and interesting smells.

Instantly, we began to play. Those in the store must have thought us foolish as I raced up and down the aisles playing with my pup, feeding him snacks simply for being with me, and then darting away, encouraging him to chase.

He was three months old, and this was his third big adventure to the store I lovingly refer to as “Disneyland”. Let’s be real – Tractor Supply IS pretty much the happiest place on Earth.

As we raced up and down the aisles, me giggling loudly and him trying his best to catch me, we ran into another dog owner, holding her large yellow lab tightly on lead. The dog instantly pulled to get to us, his owner stumbling a few steps forward before regaining her grip and wrangling the dog back to her side.

The lab gasped, his throat straining against the nylon collar as he tried with all of his might to fight the leash. But his efforts were thwarted, and before long, my pup and I had darted out of the aisle and out of sight of the dog that wanted nothing more than to join our game.

When I have young dogs in training, 90% of my time is spent making a fool of myself. As others are perfectly heeling their pups up and down the aisles of busy stores or preventing their dog from pulling by keeping a tight grip on the lead, or even asking for complex behaviors like sit, stay, and down, we are spending our days playing.

Every time we pass those perfectly poised pups practicing their obedience, they instantly break focus and do everything in their power to join us as we frolic. Many times, owners get irritated at us as they try to refocus their pup. They may lure their distracted dog with unwanted treats that the dog promptly spits out, or they may pull the dog back to their side, wrapping their hands around his snout, forcing his gaze back where it should be. All the while, the dog pines to be with us. And all the while, the dog remains distracted and unfocused on their owner.

Here’s why my pup and I do what we do

It may sound impractical, but as my young pup and I play in the stores or race through a busy park, playing fun games accompanied by lots of treats, I am actually teaching him something. In fact, through our games, we achieve one thing that many dog owners constantly strive for and scarcely attain. We achieve engagement.

Through our games, my pup wants to be with me. In fact, he learns that no matter where we go, no matter what is going on with his surroundings, he can count on me to be the most interesting thing around. As others struggle to keep their dog’s focus, my pup rarely diverts his gaze from mine. And the beautiful thing about it all is that he stays focused because he WANTS to….not because I force him.

When training your dog, believe it or not, engagement comes first. If your dog is focused on the world around him, you’ve lost the training battle before you’ve even begun. You can’t expect your dog to perform complex commands that you bark at him if he isn’t paying attention to you to begin with. For that reason, I’ll offer up that if you struggle with focus, it might be time to lower your criteria for reward, and begin celebrating your dog for engaging…….only. Make him WANT to be with you and want to work with you, and your commands will no longer fall on deaf ears.

Here’s what you need to know:

  1. Change your expectations. – If you are struggling with engagement or focus in public, it’s time to lower your expectations. Instead of walking into a busy store, trying to coerce your dog into a behavior he knows and then offering a reward, take a step back. Reward your dog simply for acknowledging your presence – the “participation award” so to speak, and do so often. Don’t ask for complex behaviors, and don’t ask for your dog to hold his gaze for long. Instead, capture the moments his gaze shifts your way and reward them consistently and well. This will build your dog’s expectation in you, and help him want to to engage.
  2. Be more interesting. – If your pup stays consistently distracted by the world around him and his gaze never meets yours, it’s time for you to be more interesting. This is one of the hardest challenges I prescribe for my clients, but it is the one that pays the biggest dividends in engagement. If your dog won’t focus, it’s your job to make him. And I’m not talking about using force or punishment. Grabbing his muzzle and forcing his gaze to meet yours isn’t training….it’s cheating. Instead, get interesting! Encourage him to look, and celebrate him when he does. Move, run, and play with him….whatever it takes to make him want to pay attention to you. Then the moment he does, reward him for it. Eventually, his first instinct to look to his surroundings for excitement and stimulation will shift towards an expectation in you to be the most important thing in his world.
  3. Reward your dog with what he wants, not what you think he should want. – Believe it or not, there is a science to rewarding your dog. You can’t simply grab a hot dog and walk out the door, expecting to achieve 100% engagement the moment you wave the tasty morsel in front of your dog’s nose. Instead, you need to select a reward your dog loves. Dog’s aren’t cookie-cutter robots. They are individuals, with distinct personalities and tastes. So tailor your rewards to your pup. Rewards can come in the form of affection, praise, treats, toys, or even play. When you offer up your reward in public, it’s your job to gauge your dog’s response. If he turns his nose up at your treat or takes it only occasionally, it’s time to choose a different reward. This is a process of trial and error, so don’t worry if it takes a little time to get it right.
  4. Rewards should be given by you and you alone. Period. – One of the biggest mistakes people make in training is brought on by the urging of dog professionals for the process of “socialization”. Dog owners are regularly introducing their dogs to new people and other dogs in an attempt to “socialize” them and prevent aggressive tendencies. However, when in public, if your dog learns he can get rewards from complete strangers in the form of praise, ear scratches, and even treats, and at the same time learns that you are simply the person who holds him back on that darn leash, you can bet that he isn’t going to want to focus on you when you ask. If you are working on engagement, it’s imperative that the rewards come from you and you alone. Don’t let him engage with other people during the training process. Don’t let him play with other dogs when on leash. Your job is to keep him focused on you and to be the best thing in his world. And that’s far easier to accomplish if you don’t have other people and dogs to compete with!

Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels
Photo Credit @ Tamandra Michaels

The next time you are out with your dog in a busy public space and you fail to hold his attention, ask yourself this question.

“What is the reward he’s after?”

If he’s gazing at other dogs, he’s likely been rewarded by being allowed to sniff, interact, or play with them. If he’s staring at the clerk at the checkout, chances are he’s been given a treat at checkout in the past.

Then ask yourself this:

“What am I doing to make him want to pay attention to me above all else?”

If the answer is barking commands at him in hopes he’ll comply, I guarantee the checkout clerk or that dog over in the distance are far more rewarding than you, and you’ll consistently struggle to keep his focus with them around.

To get him back to wanting to be with you and work with you, simply change your expectations, get more interesting, and reward him for his focus. Don’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself either! It may feel funny and a little embarrassing at first, but in no time, you’ll be having a blast alongside your pup and achieving higher levels of engagement, connection, and training progress than you imagined possible.  

Good luck, and have fun!

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.

    30 replies to "Got Focus? Setting Expectations and Winning Your Dog’s Attention"

    • Brigitta

      I am a new reader and I love your blog.
      Especially this post – very important stuff. Been there – done that – all the wrongs. I have a new pup right now and I am trying my best to not fall in all the traps. It is good to get it refreshed and I will for sure return and read this post a couple of times.

      • Meagan Karnes

        Welcome! It can be tough for sure! We’ve all been there I think! Best of luck to you and your pup! Keep up the awesome work 🙂

    • Alissa

      Thanks for the reminder of this common sense stuff that is often forgotten.

      • Vicki Karnes

        Great article Megan

    • Ursula

      Very nicely put. I truly believe the same principles and love being the silly one, especially when it inspires others to relax and do the same with their own dogs. A lot of training is so drab, or cookie cutter, if you relax and engage with the dog, you get so much more out of the relationship.

    • Sherry Brainard

      Great Read! I have a 2 year old GWP and I struggle with this…with bad knees it’s hard to ‘romp’ with him, but I will try everything I can to be more fun. Lots of times, I just stand in place and ‘act’ like I am running and he runs circles around me..he seems to love it. I am new to training and am trying to learn all I can…he is kinda my guinea pig dog, poor guy. But I love him and I am trying very hard. Love all your information. Thank you!

    • Jill

      I have an eight month old shepherd and I have tried everything else to get her attention. She is better now. I have had her three months at this time. I am her second owner, and the first did nothing with her so this is all from scratch..

      Thank you for these suggestions. I hope it will work!!!

      She does know certain words — ball, toy, sit, the normal stuff. Her biggest thing is distraction and coming “every single time” I call her. She needs to learn to stop .. I can’t take her in the front yard as she darts in the woods and comes back when she is ready. (we live in the country) I go in the back yard with her so she won’t jump our fence. She always comes back when she get out, but the 10-15 min she is gone are the most frantic of my life. I don’t know how to keep this from happening.

    • Amber

      This is a great reminder to focus on “engagement” which those of us that compete in dog sports, can easily forget how valuable this is above all else! Very timely for me to be reminded of this as I’m soon getting a puppy.
      #4 made me really think more about socialization vs. everything coming from me. Your perspective makes total sense, but positive exposure & experience to the world during critical growth periods is important as well. I would like to hear more about your approach to socialization. Thanks! 🙂

      • Meagan Karnes

        Great point! However, I think my definition of socialization is a bit different than most. I believe strongly in the need for early and continued socialization. But for me, the commonly held belief of exposure through interaction (i.e. get pet by 100 strangers in 100 days etc) is a bit dangerous and counterproductive to training programs. For me, socialization is exposure without interaction. I never let my dogs or puppies engage with people or dogs in there environment unless they have a problem they need to overcome. Instead, I play fun training and socialization games in all sorts of environments, around other dogs, and around other people. The puppy gets used to the sights, and sounds, with zero risk and with a focus on engagement and training. Not only does this prevent my dog from getting rewarded by, and becoming fixed on elements of his environment, but it also minimizes the risk that comes with interaction. Sadly, while many have great intentions with socialization, I have seen puppies and dogs put in detrimental situations (i.e around other dogs who bully them, around people who don’t read their stress signals etc etc) that end up having lasting effects. My puppy or dog instead gets the exposure so often, it becomes background noise and nothing to fear…..ever. And I’ve not had an issue after raising dozens upon dozens of pups this way. I have seen MANY social and behavioral issues come from a combination of genetics and early attempts at socialization. My dogs play with other dogs at my house or at my friend’s houses, with dogs I know and trust entirely outside of training environments, and they socialize with friends and family (kids included) again at my home or at theirs so they get some interaction – but it isn’t the center of their program.

        • Marvin

          Hi, what if I’ve been socializing wrong, unlike what you just mentioned? Is there a way to reverse it for a pup that is less than 5 months?

          • Meagan Karnes

            Absolutely! Just shift focus on building engagement and work ethic and spend time rewarding the dog for paying attention while implementing management practices to prevent the pup from self rewarding in the environment 🙂

    • elsa mendes

      Hi Meagan, i’m just a beginner, a real “puppy” in this subject, but at 50 years old i decided to change my life and start to train dogs. I discovered your blog this weekend and i am astonished! thank you so much for sharing your ideas and experience the way you do, open and assertive. And you are kind, too.
      I just would like a word of you about working with shelters, it’s there that i’m beginning training dogs. Have you ever had a job with it?
      Obrigada 😉

      • Meagan Karnes

        Thank you for the kind words. And congrats on your new endeavor! I worked extensively with shelters and rescue organizations for the better part of my career 🙂 Some very rewarding work!

    • Gina

      Hi Meagan, Thank you for your blog and all your info challenging us to be better teachers for our dogs! I have an older playful GSD and will be adding a new pup soon.
      How best to manage pup so he doesn’t become too doggy (ie. older dog is his focus) yet have sanity in my house , I don’t want to be a constant managed dog household, especially since older dog has free reign. I don’t want to make my life harder!
      How much time together is too much, how much engagement training will I be doing? are these daily sessions enough or will I have to separate them all the time?
      Just wanting to manage my expectations!!!

    • Aayden

      Hi Meagan,

      I wanted to ask, does this mean we should never let anyone pet our dogs, never let them play with another dog? What if you live with family? Can they not interact with the dog? I just have so many questions!

      • Meagan Karnes

        During training – no. You shouldn’t allow your dog to interact with others. But at home, or when your dog is off leash, they can absolutely engage with family members and friends. For me, if I’m in public, my dog is on lead, AND if I’m working to build focus and engagement I don’t let my dog engage with other people or dogs. If my dog has great engagement and can be off leash, or if we are at home my dog can engage with whomever he wants 🙂

    • Dennis

      It’s so important to start engagement with your pup at a young age and forgive me if this has been asked. Aren’t you worried about taking such young pups into environments such as Tractor Supply or Home Depot when they haven’t completed their vaccinations?

      • Meagan Karnes

        It’s a calculated risk. I take my puppies to places that aren’t frequented by other dogs (so no pet stores), with hard floors (no grass or dirt areas) that are clean and I never let them engage with other dogs. This way, while the risk is there, I’ve minimized it substantially.

    • Patrícia Paixão

      Hi Meagan!

      Thank you for this post! It raised a lot of questions for me.
      Me and my boyfriend adopted a street dog last year, we named him Gaspacho. We do not know his previous history, besides him being on the street on a city of a friend of ours… We never owned dogs before, just cats. We were first asked to be his temporary family, but then we couldn’t “let him go”. The vets said he would be in between 6-12 months (which makes him in between a year and one year and a half now), he is a mutt, cross breed maybe between a Castro Laboreiro (Portuguese breed) and a Lab.
      So… he was highly energetic at the beginning and maybe nervous or anxious, which is normal. He is much better now – except with other dogs.
      We walk him 3 times a day, one of the walks its usually longer. In this longer walk, and since the beginning, we used to let him off leash in the park and play with him, or maybe he would meet another dog to play. It happens that the recall started “not working” or the play. We released him in the park and I take the ball or the rope, and he gets uninterested very fast, goes sniffing around – which is no problem, except if he sees a dog at the other end of the park and starts running to him and we can’t stop him. It has happened that the dog is not that friendly and, although he is very friendly, he has reacted aggressively when the other dogs bark or something. He has also “ran away” to where we can’t see him, only once to a point where we had to go to the police (it was at the very beginning and we thought he could be beside us without leash – we were in a square, playing with a rope and then he just started running towards a street – we ended up finding him in a park).That said, it has made me and my boyfriend a little afraid to let him off leash in park. We didn’t have the financial possibility to neuter him yet, but in the next few months we will. When he is at home, or in a more “focused area” he comes, but not if he is off leash in the park when it’s full or he sees something that grabs his attentions. We have bought a 8m leash recently and, besides your blog, I came across a book by Pippa Mattinson (we have been doing the whistling exercise at home with food – with our lips not the whistle). I don’t think we have “a plan” yet, I have just started reading all of this and I’m amazed by the amount of information. But I have a few doubts and questions (sorry for this long text):
      – If we are seriously starting with a plan – or training – how do I avoid this attention from others? Because… ex: in Portugal you can’t enter in stores with your dog, if I go for a walk and maybe just have to grab something from the supermarket I will just leave him outside for a little bit – I have no idea how many people pet him, but it’s frequent, that even while we are walking him if we stop, someone pets him…
      – Treats – my father started to be Gaspacho’s nr. 1 fan. He gives him treats for nothing – and I know it’s psychological – but he already thinks if Gaspacho is at his house he has to give him treats. We usually take something different to the park, but doesn’t this undermine whatever training we would do?
      – Socialization – I fear… that this is a “two-sided” problem. 1. If I let him go in the park, at the moment, I’m afraid that he runs away 2. If we don’t let him go I’m afraid that he starts getting frustrated/sad/aggressive, not socializing. (today he was playing with a dog but with the leash). And I also read your article about fear:P
      – Treats – I read about high value treats – we usually take tiny ones. But in this case – training him to come, should we take something “bigger” like chunks of cheese, or chicken? (We do not eat meat so we would be buying this just for him).

      Sorry for this testament – I feel like I have been reading many things and it’s still hard to know what to do!

      Thank you once again for your attention and care.

    • Wendy Barned

      Love your blogs and I personally believe the same as you in regards to engagement and socialisation. Keep the good stuff coming!

    • Saralee

      My puppy just turned a year old. I feel I’ve already failed in training in so many areas. I know in reality I haven’t. I do know that training is everyday and I’m up for that. Some days will be more than other days due to my schedule. I want my puppy to have fun and that’s where I got lost in the training thing. I feel that you have the key to what I’m looking for. I want to try what I think you have figured out. I’m excited about a new training style.

    • Jenny

      Thanks for another great article! It’s so tough to figure out how much socializing we should give to our new puppy!

    • Amy Olvitt

      Hi, I enjoyed your article on engagement. How do you get a nervous/fearful dog to engage in play. When we go somewhere new he is scanning for bears the entire time.

      • Casey Wood

        The best recommendation is to start in easy environments and very slowly work into the more challenging ones. Focus on building value for play in areas where your dog is comfortable.

    • ROXIE

      First time reader here!
      OMG, I LOVE this!
      … I can be a bit clumsy as well! lol 🙂

    • Monica

      As an agility instructor, this is my biggest challenge with students…….engagement! Reading this was like reading a page from my journal: running up and down the aisles at Home Depot while playing with my puppy, acting like a total dork on my agility field for my neighbors to enjoy 🙂 My dogs, and my student’s dogs, can’t take their eyes off me, but this is a skill I struggle to teach to my students. In fact, my students look very distraught when they see how insane I am when I play with my dogs or their dogs during class or lessons. We discuss true play, but what I see is fake play. They go through the motions, but I can see they have a goal behind the play instead of just enjoying play time. I have talked with several other friends that are instructors and they seem to struggle with the same “relationship” issues between dogs and handlers. I hope to be able to actually pass this invaluable skill onto my students some day, but for now, they do not seem to “hear” the message.

    • M

      Megan, I hope you’re still taking questions. In one of your earlier comments, you mentioned that your dog is only allowed to interact with others when off leash or at home. My problem (other than not having a dog yet) is that I’m single and have no other pets, do you have any suggestions for allowing controlled interactions in this situation?

      • Meagan Karnes

        First, I’m curious as to the purpose of setting up controlled interactions. Is there a reason for this aside from simple socialization? If you feel it necessary to find some trustworthy dogs to expose your dog to, I’d recommend joining local dog/owner meet up groups and going without your dog a time or two. Make some friends with folks who have dogs that are stable, and then arrange a time to meet one on one. The best, most productive groups are ones that have planned activities such as hikes or other excursions rather than those that meet at dog parks etc. 🙂

    • Wendy

      Absolutely love this piece on engagement with your pup. I also agree with your thoughts on socialization. These things are going to help with work ethic also!

    • Joanna Kiggell

      Hi –

      I raise puppies for who we hope will become guide dogs (2 out of 3 so far) and this dog distraction and recall are my greatest challenges. All our training is obviously on leash and it sounds to me that you keep your dogs on leash in the park. Do you advocate on leash on walks. I am not too worried regarding exercise as we play a great deal at home, have multiple dogs and a large property so no lack of crazy running at home.

      Many thanks – especially the loose leash blog. The other great challenge.

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