Teaching a Dog to Pay Attention on Walks Instead of Barking at Dogs

By: David Codr

Published Date: February 1, 2024

teaching a dog to pay attention

For this Santa Monica dog training session we worked with Golden Skipper and German Shorthair Pointer Mollie; teaching a dog to pay attention on walks.

As always, I started off by going over a number of dog behavior fundamentals. Part of the reason so few of my clients need to see me for a follow up session is because I take a holistic approach to dog behavior. I don’t just look at the problem, I look at the underlieing facotrs; its environment, routine and how the dog and human interact. It’s remarkable how many dog behavior problems are actually caused by or contributed by humans.

We loaded a clicker to use as a marker and then I used the hand targeting exercise to help the guardian practice her timing. She was marking a little bit late which can slow down the dogs ability to learn as early or late timing can confuse a dog.

I went over the importance of celebrating desired behaviors when the dog offers them voluntarily (Celebrating). This is probably the easiest lesson that I teach that is also the most profound, but only if people practice it. I strongly recommend the guardian start pointing at each other and saying “celebrate” any time they see their partner miss an opportunity to mark and reward the dog for offering a desired behavior (sit, down, come, eye contact, dropping things, etc).

I also went over how to teach dog manners, how to call them away from unwanted behaviors using a positive interrupter and hand targeting combination, we went over creative exercise tips like feeding out of snuffle mats and treat dispensing toys, scent games like Cookie in the Corner and the Find it away game, how to create a healthy leader follower dynamic by incorporating some rules and structure.  We wrapped the basics up by going over dog consent, cut off signals and body language.

Tips for Teaching a Dog to Pay Attention on Walks

One of the primary issues the guardians wanted to work on was Mollie’s reactive / aggressive behavior to dogs on walks. Mollie doesnt do this with smaller dogs, but big dogs who stare, bark or lunge causes her to act aggressively. Many people mistakenly believe that when the dog barks, snaps or lunges that that is their first indicator that they are uncomfortable.

In reality, dogs give a number of cut off signals to avoid confrontations. Unfortunately most people don’t know what those signals are and walk their dogs too close to dogs who arent comfortable around other dogs. Mollie likes a lot of other dogs, but those who challenge her can cause her to react back. But now that the guardian know a little bit more about dog body language and cust off signals (Mollie’s guardian showed an advanced level of dog behavior awareness), she can redirect her dog’s attention sooner; distracting or moving Mollie away (find it away game) the instant she sees her first communicate that she is uncomfortable.

But sometimes it’s not possible to move away or avoid some thing on walks. I wanted to show the guardian how she can use the 123 pattern game to call Mollie’s attention away from something that she may react to. If you have a dog that can focus on the wrong thing, gets easily distracted on walks or if your dog doesn’t listen to you when you need it, you should definitely check out the free positive dog training video below.

By loading the word “three” with treats multiple times (20-40 treats of pieces of kibble) and then eventually adding in the numbers “two” and then “one,” the guardian will be able to create a pattern that causes her dog to turn and look at her every time she says the word “three.”

This is an easy way to get your dog to pay attention or distract them away from things that may get them into trouble. But in order for the 123 pattern game to work, the guardian will need to sufficiently load the word as I demonstrate in the video above. Id like to see her loading the word a few times a day (20-40 reps), then add in the previous one or two numbers in the following 2 days to create a strong assoicaiton.

Once she has finished loading the “threes,” the guardian can start practicing this technique. I recommended that she start practicing outside of her apartment in the hallway of her apartment complex. This is a wonderful location to teach a dog because there are not a lot of distractions and the hallway creates a nice structure (dog next to human as they walk together).

This will be a much more effective way of getting the dogs attention than popping the leash or repeatedly calling the dogs name when it is overwhelmed. The key is to practice often and then start giving the 123 cue before Mollie gets too close to something she may react to. She can repeat the 123 cue over and over to maintain the dogs attention by saying the numbers rapidly, in other situations she may start counting them out slower for stimulus that is not quite so intense or moving slowly.

Towards the end of the session I shared a number of loose leash walking tips like the circle orientation game and the bowl pressure game. The guardian had been previously working with a trainer who used some aversive methods to teach loose leash walking. But aversive training methods are notorious for only working at the beginning and creating a negative associaiton with somehting unrelated. Popping the leash of a reactive dog will absolutely make things worse as you are only suppressing an emotion, not changing it.

Punishing mistakes and practicing in an environment that is too distracting like an actual walk are the two most common mistakes people make when trying to teach their dogs to stop pulling on the leash. I recommended the guardin practice the loose leash walking tips first in her living room. Once Mollie is good doing the expercise there, she can move outside the apartment in the hallway. Once Molie is good there (is successful 4 out of 5 times in a row) she can practice in the apartmenrt complex’s common area when no dogs are around. Once she is good there, then you can take the lesson on an actual walk. Just like humans, its important to learn what to do first, then make things more challanging later.

To help the guardian remember all of the tips we covered in this in-home Santa Monica dog training session, we recorded a roadmap to success summary video that you can watch below.

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This post was written by: David Codr