Friday, May 25, 2007

Attention!

I'm in the midst of another session of puppy classes, and yet again I'm reminded of the importance of a very easy-to-teach behavior we call attention-to-name. I just can't stress enough how valuable it is to teach (and practice frequently) the very simple act of having your dog turn toward you when you say its name.

I know first-hand that this one little behavior can save a dog's life because of an incident that happened with Zsa Zsa, the pit bull puppy I fostered last year. Zsa Zsa had only been in my company for a few hours, but I had spent part of that time teaching her to turn toward me when she heard her name. At one point I took her out into the front yard on-leash for a potty break, and I got a little tangled in the leash (she was a wiggly little thing). In the course of untangling myself, I accidentally dropped the leash. Zsa Zsa chose that exact moment to notice something very interesting across the street, and took off. Meanwhile, a car was heading up the street at a speed and trajectory that looked like it would intersect with little Zsa Zsa. All I could do was shout "Zsa Zsa!" but miraculously, it worked. She not only stopped and turned toward me, but came running back. I gave her a "jackpot" food reward when she got to me.

Teaching attention-to-name is incredibly simple. Get some tasty treats you know your dog will love (or instead of feeding her dinner out of a bowl, put it in your treat pouch or pocket and teach with it). When your dog is looking away from you, take a treat, hold it in front of the dog's nose and use it as a lure to turn the dog's head toward you (if the dog won't look away to begin with, go someplace with a few more distractions). As you are turning the dog's head, say her name, pairing the stimulus (name) with the behavior (head turning toward you). Immediately mark the behavior as correct ("yes!" or click) and give the treat as a reward. After a few times of luring, you can try the name without the lure. If the dog performs the behavior at one utterance of her name, mark, treat and keep practicing. If the dog does not turn at her name, do not repeat the name, but go back to luring. If you keep saying the dog's name without getting the behavior, you are diluting the command, i.e. teaching the dog that hearing her name is really rather meaningless. (Ever been to a dog park when someone was futilely repeating a dog's name over and over--"Harley! Harley! Harley! Harley!" With no response from the dog? Harley obviously doesn't believe that any response is necessary!)

Another great way to get your dog to pay attention is to shape a "checking-in" behavior. I use several names for this: "The Attention Game," "Be a Tree" and "The Zen Game." It requires a little time and patience because it's a shaping and not a luring exercise, so it may require a lot of waiting (which is why I call it "The Zen Game"). It's very simple, though: put your dog on a 6-foot leash, grab some tasty treats and go to a place with only a few distractions (if you start in a very distracting place you're making it too difficult for yourself and your dog). Hold the end of your dog's leash against your waist so that if she pulls toward something she doesn't gain more distance pulling your arm away--she gets her leash length and no more. Now wait. Be still ... you're a tree. Don't say anything to your dog or try to interact, just stand there and keep an eye on your dog and be ready to reward. Sooner or later--often later--she will turn toward you, maybe even look right at your face. Mark that instant ("Yes!" or click) as correct and give her a treat. Then become a tree again and wait patiently for your dog to turn and look again. If she keeps staring at you and won't look away after a reward, you may need to walk a few steps and let her get interested in something else before you become a tree again. Because behaviors that are rewarded are more likely to be repeated, it will only take a few rewards before most dogs start "checking in" more frequently. Some dogs will take longer--just be patient. As with all exercises, you'll want to start with very short sessions at first and end the exercise if you or your dog become bored or frustrated. If it seems to take forever to get a "check-in," go ahead and change the subject and practice attention-to-name instead. You can always try the attention game another time.

Once you are getting attention with either of these exercises in a low-distraction place, start increasing the level of difficulty by going to more exciting places where there are more things for your dog to see and smell. But remember that you never want to make it too difficult for your dog too quickly, or you'll both just become frustrated.

These exercises aren't just for puppies, either! The adage "You can't teach an old dog new tricks" is dead wrong.

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