I start each and every training session by asking my dog if he is ready to work. Different trainers refer to this process by different names, such as ready to work, start button behaviors, or engagement, but all this really means is that the dog is opting in to training with you.
The last thing I want to do is beg my dog for attention or plead with him to respond to my cues. Giving my dog a cue when he is not ready only sets the dog up to ignore me. If my dog is not engaged with me, I will not cue her to do anything. This seems really simple, but I see it all the time!
Come Up With a Routine
Instead, come up with a routine that allows your dog to tell you when he is ready. My dogs find working with me very reinforcing, so it’s something they’d like to start as soon as possible! That being said, sometimes, particularly in new situations, the dog needs some time to acclimate. In this case, I want to give my dog the time he needs to feel comfortable in the environment, because it’s pretty hard to learn if you’re uncomfortable.
My training routine generally starts with my dog in the crate. This could be the crate in the car, the crate at the training facility, or the crate at the trial. My dogs have been taught to remain in the crate until they hear the release word, so I start by opening the door and attaching the leash. When I get eye contact from the dog (which is not something I ask for, instead he offers it) I release the dog to come out of the crate.
At that point, I allow the dog to look around for as long as he needs. Depending on the situation, I might stick him on a station or in a relaxed down stay so he can observe the environment. I might walk him around or we might observe from a corner.
Even while my dog is acclimating, he can’t just drag me around on a tight leash and rush up to other dogs or people. I still expect the dog to behave and walk on a loose leash, but I don’t demand attention from the dog.
Once my dog has had enough time to check out the environment, it’s time to start our training session! These sessions always start similar once I get to the training area, but moving to that area might look different. Depending on the situation and where I am, I might transport the dog to the training area by luring him with a treat, or I might send him to a station in the area.
Wait for Offered Eye Contact
Once we move into the area, I will pause and look at my dog. I start by waiting for *offered* eye contact. It’s important that the eye contact is offered, that my dog does it without prompting from me. I want him to initiate the session.
When I get offered eye contact, I will mark with a “yes” and feed from my hand. Once the dog eats the treat, I pay attention to how long it takes him to look back at me. I want him to swallow the treat and look back at me right away. This tells me that he’s focused on me and working. I will usually do a few different reward markers, starting with yes (feed from my hand). When he is immediately offering eye contact after eating the treat, I will make it more difficult by doing a get it (throw the treat on the ground). I usually throw the first treat close to me, to make it slightly easier for him. Once again, I pay attention to what happens from the time he eats the treat until I get eye contact again. If my dog is distracted at that moment, whether it’s sniffing the ground or looking around before coming back to me, I know he is not in the ideal place for learning.
So, my dog is distracted after eating the get it treat. Now what? Depending on how distracted he was, I might wait for eye contact and do another get it treat. If he’s really distracted or still struggles, I’ll go back to yes. I might move farther away from distractions or even move to a different area if my dog is really struggling. I will not start training if he can’t give me attention after eating a treat.
If my dog can’t focus on me right after eating a treat, then how could I expect him to give me anything more than eating food? I don’t want to cue a behavior if he is distracted, so I use reward markers so he can tell me if he’s able to work. It’s my job to listen to him.
Our routine now is pretty smooth and fast. It’s rare that Excel needs marker cues to be repeated. He is super quick to offer steady eye contact because he wants to get the game started. I usually do 1-2 yes markers, then at least one get it. If he’s super quick to come back after each of those, we’ll start training.
Next time you train, ask your dog if he or she is ready to work. Even more important, listen to the answer! Don’t train a dog that’s not ready.