A dog pays attention to what is relevant to him – and that is not always you. When anxious, a dog might keep a wary eye on his person all of the time, but, and contrary to what some believe, one who feels secure doesn’t. It is abnormal for any species to ignore their surroundings and be exclusively attentive to only one other group member, and dogs function the same way. They, too, are attracted to a variety of things, seek to explore what they are curious about, or want to play, or retreat to where they can chew a bone or nap without being disturbed.
A dog pursuing his own interests is not a problem if we can prompt attention back to us when we need to, and that is what the dog’s name is for: A fixed attention getter.
According to “The Genius of Dogs”, dogs are more likely to follow a gaze and pointing gesture when called to attention and paid attention to, so when the connection between dog and human is established. Entirely commonsensical, right? Nevertheless, studying stuff like that is not inane. We need science to put weight behind what we already know – that when we don’t have a dog’s attention we rarely get the behavior we desire, and if we don’t give it the dog will shift his focus elsewhere.
A sign of mutual connection is eye contact, and that is what I aim for, but before I explain how to achieve that inflexible name response, I want to point out that some dogs are bred to keep their eyes on the job, and can stay mentally connected with their person, and respond to their cues, without looking at them. They split their attention.
With the household companion pooch, though, it is eye contact I am after. So, how do we get our dog to: Automatically flip his attention to us and stay connected when he hears his name?
With a pup, that’s easy.
Obviously, before a dog can respond to his name, he must recognize it, and you’d charge him up like you do to a clicker: name-treat, name-treat… Next, say his name and withhold the treat for a split second. Does he look at you? Great, hand over the loot, but combine the release with the word take. That accomplishes two things: Right from the start, the pup learns not to take food unless he hears the release command, and he learns that another cue always follows the name.
If he doesn’t look at you, you can either lure eye contact by holding the treat between your eyes, or backtrack to the name-treat, name-treat for a few more times.
Once you get reliable eye contact, outstretch your treat hand a little, and when your dog looks at you when you say his name instead of the hand, release the treat. Step by step, extend your arm farther, and move your hand behind your back.
A question that typically comes up at this point is if you should prolong the lapse between name and treat release to teach the dog to stay plugged in. You could, but a couple of seconds is enough, because the end game is not sustained attention with nothing to do, but an action that follows. An action cued by me. The dog looks when he hears his name and waits for information what to do next, which is supplied momentarily, but not instantly.
Exactly because name attention is just the beginning of something, and not a fleeting glance in your direction, I don’t click or verbally mark it. Think how you use a name in your interactions with people. We don’t call someone and when she shifts her attention our way hand over a piece of chocolate, but otherwise keep her in mental limbo. We engage. Would we not, what are the chances our partner would be irritated and eventually tune us out despite the chocolate? It is much the same with dogs.
Once your dog ignores the treat hand completely, toss one and tell him to get it, and after he gobbled it up say his name again and when he pays attention toss one the other direction, and gradually raise the bar: toss 2, 3, 4 or more treats.
And then comes the fun part: Call your dog, and then cue him to do whatever it is you’re enjoying together: Chase, Fetch, Ball, Find-it, Sniff, Play. Make yourself interesting. Make it a big deal, and the interaction with you becomes the primary reinforcement, not the treat. Of course food can always be a part, but many dogs are more motivated by action than a treat shoved into their mouth - are unless they're subjected to one of the Nothing in Life is Free programs.
So, keep that in mind and be creative, and impress your dog when he chooses to connect with you instead of doing a number of other things he finds interesting. That builds solid name attention, and when you have it you can get it even when your dog is tantalized by an über-interesting distraction out there.
Calling a dog by name is the kindest, most humane way to elicit attention. We are humans, and humans don’t poke or electrically stimulate someone we want to connect with, but use his or her name, and that is what we should use with our dogs as well. It is also effective, because our dogs are inherently readied to respond to it - provided of course they are physically able to hear.
The name means: “Are you with me? What happens next involves you.” The dog has a choice and can say no, but if you train and use it correctly, he rarely will.
A jab with the finger or foot and a zap with the shock collar are both popular attention getters, but convey: “You better pay attention or else.” No choice. The person demands and might get it, but won’t get his dog’s friendship.
The way you prompt attention sets the platform for the relationship, and you are setting it. The results are cooperation and keen performances, or apprehension and unease. It should be obvious that a dog who associates his name with discomfort, even if only sometimes, is less reliable or relies on force for a lifetime. In addition, a dog who is distressed when called might avert his eyes in appeasement, and a nervous, unfocused dog who does not look at me is difficult to teach. That is the polar opposite of what I am aiming for.
So, don’t use your dog’s name in anger or frustration, and don’t call him to attention, and to come, and then do something that he perceives as aversive and a punishment. Emphasis is on “perceive”, not what your intent is.
If your dog feel ambiguity toward his name, maybe he is a rescue dog whose history is unknown, observe for signs of resistance, appeasement or avoidance when you say it. If he doesn’t respond, or hesitatingly; if he lowers his body or shifts his weight backwards, if he averts his eyes or head, change it.
I recommend teaching the new name as you would with a pup vs. combining the new name with the old name and fading out the old one. If the name triggers anxiety, I really do not want to use it anymore.
The name should be the first cue the dog should know, and when he experiences it as a predictably pleasant beginning of something with you, you condition instant, attentive eye contact that is maintained until another cue follows. Everything you teach subsequently is a whole lot easier, and your relationship is mutually rewarding.
By the way, it is handy in a multi-dog household when you only want one particular pooch. Naturally, for that to work you also need solid stay and come commands, and I’ll address these, and more cues every dog should know, in the next few weeks.