It was a muggy day, the marine layer was thick under the weight of the sun, and the air felt heavy as I made my way across the field. The woman in the distance exited her vehicle, in which she left a bouncing dog, who was pressing his nose out the rear windows, barking at anything and everything that passed.
She gave her dog a frustrated look as she made her way to me, crossing the field as her vehicle rocked with the dog’s enthusiastic movements.
The dog let out an excited yip from the backseat of her car as she introduced herself, and we shook hands. Then, she explained her plight.
She told me that she was hoping to clean up her dog’s obedience – that her dog knew the commands, but his response was lackluster, and she was hoping I’d help her increase his speed and accuracy. She had goals of competing in rally obedience, but at this stage, she wouldn’t fare too well on the trial field.
She then went on to tell me about the classes she had been taking him to, the group lessons she was enrolled in, and the extensive hours sacrificed to training.
There was no doubt she was dedicated. But she had reached a plateau. Her obedience training had gone from a fun adventure every week to an exercise in patience. Her dog was struggling to maintain focus in class, and she was failing to see any real progress.
Her dog knew his routine – knew the commands – but performed it as if it were a chore, and she was tired of seeing other dogs in class prancing enthusiastically next to their owners while hers barely maintained focus.
At times, her dog would break routine, fixating on another dog or person walking by, occasionally shrieking out in frustration as he was being held back from playing.
After she finished explaining her situation, I asked her to retrieve the dog – I wanted to see how the two engaged with one another. I already had some ideas in mind as to what the problem might be, but I wanted to see the two work together, just to be sure.
She opened the door to the car, and the rambunctious dog bolted out, darting to the end of his leash and nearly taking her to the ground as he did.
“I can’t believe he still has ANY energy left over,” I said to myself, referencing the last twenty minutes the dog had been ping-ponging inside of the parked car, barking loudly as he did.
“Show me your routine,” I called to her from across the field as she and her dog began to make their way to me. “Just do what you normally do,” I explained.
She began calling commands. Her dog listened… mostly. As she asked him to sit, his focus drifted to some people at the nearby dog park, pining for the tennis ball that was being thrown at precisely that moment. As she asked him to down, he licked his lips, slowly taking the position, but now alternating between focusing on her and paying attention to the other dogs on the field who were posing quite the distraction.
Her heel was mechanical, the dog walking next to her, maintaining position but being regularly distracted by his environment – his focus everywhere except on his handler.
Making her way to me, her face appeared inquisitive and curious to my assessment, her body posture telling me she wanted nothing more than to learn. To be better. To improve engagement.
“Here’s the thing,” I explained after congratulating her on a job well done. “You’ve obviously put a ton of work in, and that’s awesome.”
She looked at me questioningly, waiting for the “but…” that was inevitably on it’s way.
“But….” I continued, silently reading her mind, “you have one major problem….” I went on.
“He’s just not that into you.”
I haven’t seen the movie where that line was made famous. But I have seen the dozens upon dozens of dog and handler teams who suffer the same plight. These dogs undoubtedly know their commands, but either perform them in a lackluster way, or regularly get distracted by their environment and all of the awesome things going on in the world around them. It’s an all too common phenomenon – dogs that lack engagement… I mean true engagement, their training routines suffering as a result.
In the midst of so many other elements of training and performance precision, it’s easy to lose sight of the foundational importance of engagement and relationship. Heck, back when I first began my journey in dog training, back when I worked in biotech, held a crazy schedule, and was trying my best to navigate through the thousands upon thousands of opinions on dog training, I honestly didn’t hear much about engagement, nor did I realize even remotely how pivotal it would be to the success of my training. At that point I had no clue what I was doing, and I really thought that love was all I needed to train my dog. And as a result, my dog wanted to be EVERYWHERE but with me.
3 Mistakes you MIGHT be Making
When I was first trying to train my pet dog Koby, before I knew better, I made a ridiculous amount of mistakes. Looking back on it, I can say without a doubt that I tried. I tried hard. I worked with trainers, I read everything I could find online, and I struggled through training methodology after training methodology trying to find something that worked. But the problem was, no one was telling me what the REAL problem was.
Here are the biggest mistakes I made, and the mistakes I watch many dog owners consistently struggle with in their training programs.
- Neglected Fundamentals – In my defense, when I owned my first dog, I had no clue what fundamentals even were. I didn’t know where to start, so I relied on trainers who, sadly, left this piece out of the puzzle as well. Before you start any training program, whether you are embarking on a journey in competitive obedience, or whether you just want your family pet to obey basic commands… you must start with the fundamentals. You can’t train a dog successfully if you can’t even get them to focus and engage with you. So this is where you need to start. Your commands will always fall on deaf ears if your dog thinks you don’t exist, or worse yet, if he thinks you’re simply the person that holds him back from all of the fun things he’s dying to experience in this world. You have to have focus and engagement first. Begin by practicing this at home, and work your way to environments with more distractions as your dog is ready. And if you need help, seek it out. But if you can’t get your dog to focus on you at home, you certainly won’t be able to get them to do it in a training session, so you need to start there.
- Didn’t put my relationship first – My dog LOVED me. I mean – it may have been a borderline unhealthy kind of love, but who’s judging? I knew he loved me. He snuggled with me on the couch, slept in my bed, and followed me everywhere I went. He loved me. So that meant I didn’t have relationship issues… right? … Actually, no. Just because your dog loves you, doesn’t mean you have a solid relationship. Love is great, but your dog has to trust you. And he has to WANT to work with you. In order for this to work, he needs to understand your language, and he has to have the desire to be with you. Just because you are your dog’s entire world when there is nothing better going on doesn’t mean you have a solid relationship that can handle the demands of the training process. And before you embark on any training program, you need to get this right.
- Thought dog training was about teaching commands – Like many dog owners, when I first embarked on my training journey, I was certain that dog training was about teaching commands. I thought I’d go to a training class and that I’d learn how to teach my new rescued pup things like: how to sit, lay down, and shake. But what I didn’t realize, and what nobody told me, is that there is so much more to effective dog training than that. Before teaching commands, you absolutely must get a handle on your relationship. Build a work ethic, and get your dog WANTING to learn with you. And you have to have engagement. You need to understand what motivates your dog and those things that might be a little stressful for him or her. And you need to trust one another. You have to focus on state of mind – on how you want your dog to feel before teaching your commands, and make sure you are setting up the environment for that to be the case. If you neglect these things, your dog will never reach his full potential, and, while you might get *some* results, you’ll never reach your goal of having the dog that chooses you over everything else going on in their environment.
Plainly stated, for any training program to reach its peak potential, you have to transition your dog from being “not that into you” to thinking “you are his entire world” and, as lofty a goal as it may seem, you can absolutely achieve it if you just spend some time revisiting fundamentals and working on your relationship.
That day in the park, the owner of the rambunctious dog made a few mistakes which created a dog who performed in a lackluster fashion and was easily distracted by his environment. First, she focused her attention on teaching commands without focusing on engagement and state of mind. She wanted a happy, perky, enthusiastic dog, but she never reinforced that state of mind – never spent time building enthusiasm and engagement, and never devoted time to building her dog’s work ethic. Instead, she spent time teaching her commands, which her dog obviously knew. Because she neglected her dog’s state of mind, she never really achieved the level of enthusiasm she yearned for.
In addition, by letting the dog bounce in the car, overstimulated by his new surroundings, she didn’t create an environment for success. She let the dog frustrate to his environment and blow out energy that could have been funneled into building focus and drive for work.
And lastly, she had some relationship issues she needed to work on. She had a dog that complied because he had to – not because he wanted to. She had a dog that wanted to engage with his environment and didn’t find rewards or motivation in training. And this mindset persisted, because it was inadvertently reinforced.
If you find that your dog is simply “not that into you”, take some time to revisit fundamentals. Work on your relationship, on building a work ethic, and on maximizing engagement. It’s okay to let your obedience slip while you do this. Remember, dog training isn’t simply about teaching commands, and in fact, teaching commands should come second to your relationship and engagement fundamentals anyway. Instead, take it back to basics and spend some time there. Seek help if you need to, but don’t let your trainer force you into teaching commands until you are ready. And most importantly, don’t rush the process. These fundamentals will lay the foundation for all of your training programs down the line, so don’t be in a hurry to get to your commands. Teaching behaviors is the easy part, it’s having a strong relationship that takes real effort. So don’t be impatient with yourself and your dog.
My first dog was “just not that into me”, and unfortunately, so was my second. It was only with my third dog (my second competitive dog) when I began to learn about fundamentals and engagement.
You’d never know it if you saw him now, but sweet Baby Shank (my little riot dog) who I write about in my blog often, wasn’t that into me at first. I can show you video after video of him lacking motivation, back when I first got him and he didn’t know me from Adam. Back when we had no relationship. But if you saw him now, he’s not just INTO me, he is over the top, crazy, out of his mind, excited for any training adventure we embark on. To him, other dogs don’t matter. People don’t matter. The only thing that can draw his attention from me is a bad guy in a bite suit, but trust me when I say, we’re working on it.
Because we have those fundamentals and foundation work laid, teaching behaviors is a breeze, and we are not just hitting our goals, we are crushing them. All because of the extensive relationship and work ethic building we did.
Do yourself a favor, and take some time getting back to the basics and fundamentals. As you revisit some of these foundational elements, approach them with a focus on relationship-strengthening. Your dog will sense the shift, and you will see a magnitude of difference in your training as you and your pup move forward from a solid, well laid foundation.