Engagement: Building Relationships and Tackling Distractions

The power of using your relationship, not force, to conquer fears, anxieties, and learning blocks.


If you've ever found yourself in a training situation where you just feel like you're talking to a brick wall, you've met a trainer's worst fear- a dog that has tuned out.

It happens to the best of us.  Maybe we pushed them too hard and they're confused, maybe we took them to an environment where they have too many other things to pay attention to, maybe they're just not in the mood today.  There was a time in dog training where lack of attention on the dog's part was met with force on the trainer's part.  We believed we could pop, choke, and hit our ways into our dogs' thick skulls.  Did it work?  Many times.  Is it the right thing to do?  No.  And here's why.

If your dog is not complying with what you want it to do, you need to figure out why.  If it is a matter of your dog not understanding the behavior- they are trying and engaged in the process but not understanding how to do it- you may need to change your approach.

If it is a matter of your dog understanding the behavior but not paying attention- their focus is on a person, dog, squirrel, or that super interesting blade of grass over there and are not engaged in the learning process- you need to give them a reason to pay attention to you, and not whatever else has their attention.

What has their attention is what is called a "competing motivator".  A competing motivator is something else in the world, other than the primary motivator (you and your reward), that is drawing their focus to perform an undesirable behavior.  These can be anything from food, toys, other people, other dogs, other animals, trash, a lake if your dog really likes to swim- anything.  The worst competing motivator of them all is something your dog fears or is anxious about.  Your dog now is not only distracted but, depending on their anxiety threshold, may also be in a fight-or-flight response.  So how do we get past this without conflict?


1) Distance yourself from the motivator- Not only will your movement draw your dog's attention back onto you, it creates a natural barrier- distance- between you and the competing motivator.

2) Reward for attention- At the beginning of your session, your rate of reinforcement should be 100% for any attention that is on you and NOT on the competing motivator.  That means every time your dog looks at you, it gets a reward.

3) Movement is motivating- Not only will movement draw your dog's attention back onto you, it engages the chase drive in your dog and adds another level to the reward.  You are now using your reward like a toy, even if it is food.  Remember to not just keep wandering around- constant movement is as monotonous as standing still.  Move and let the dog access the reward when it focuses on you, stop moving (if you need to, slowly continue to drift away from the distractor) when the dog's focus is not on you.  When its focus IS back on you, move and reward. 

4) Vary your reinforcements- If the dog knows it only gets one cookie per reward event, it will tune out after one cookie.  Vary the number of rewards you offer the dog, or the length of play you play with the dog, and your dog will stop checking out after the first reward or the first couple seconds of play. 

5) Depending on your dog, start asking for more controlled behaviors- As your dog becomes more comfortable in the environment, if the stressor has moved on, or if your dog's focus is consistent and purposeful, you can begin to lower your rate of reinforcement, ask for longer durations of behaviors, and throw in some control behaviors like sit, down, and heel. 

6) If the dog's focus is back on you, their energy is stable, and they do not seem to be exhibiting anxiety, continue back into work- If you ask the dog to work and it is still distracted, now is not the time to fight with them.  Either continue your engagement session or remove them from the environment.  Allowing your dog to ignore you and the task at hand teaches it that that is acceptable behavior.  That is the last thing you want to teach a dog.  Do not try to bribe or coax your dog for attention- this exercise is a choice on the dog's part and it is rewarded for good choices.  It is OK to end your session completely and get out of the situation if your efforts to engage with the dog fall on deaf ears or if the dog has passed the point of no return related to their fear or anxiety.  Make working around the given distractor or stressor a separate, purpose-driven exercise for another time.   

7) End your whole session with an engagement session- Even if your dog was able to successfully push past the mental and/or emotional block of the competing motivator and was able to complete its task, you can reward that entire experience by ending your session with an engagement session.  Moving from engagement, to work, then back to engagement ends the entire experience on a positive note.  Dogs typically go into their next training session remember how they felt the last time they trained- ending positively sets you up for success the next time you bring your dog out.


Remember that engagement sessions are not obedience training exercises.  Your criteria for reward is your dog's attention on you.  You don't need to ask for anything from them other than their want to pay attention to you and for them to ignore the distractor or stressor. 

You do not correct your dog for any behaviors during an engagement session.  A leash is crucial to keep the dog safe and block inappropriate behaviors like wandering or running away/toward a stressor- it is used as a tool for management, not for punishment.  

In the below video, it is important to note that this was one minute of a 7-10 minute engagement session.  Your engagement sessions need only be as long as a few minutes typically.  However, in this instance, the man you see shuffling up the road behind us continued to shuffle, then stare, then shuffle, then stare.  It took him almost ten minutes to leave the area.  Jethro was very worried about it- the man was in a trench coat and hat with glasses, walking with a cane full of jingly objects, and was walking in a slow shuffle while occasionally stopping to stare at us.  Jethro was anxious and I knew he would not be focused on any work other than engagement - he knows during an engagement session that he is safe and he gets rewarded at a high rate of reinforcement.  He doesn't have to think- he just needs to be calm and focused on me.  This video is the end of that session, and I begin adding longer duration behaviors and control behaviors.  

You can tell Jethro understands what this session is and why he is doing it.  Practicing engagement sessions with your dog in new environments outside of regular training prepare you and your dog to use these skills when the time comes.  


Questions or comments?  Please let us know!