Engagement Series #1: Building Blocks to Engagement

"Look at how he tilts his head and listens to everything you say....how do you get him to do that?

"You talkin' to ME?"

"You talkin' to ME?"

Over the years, I've heard this question a lot when people meet my dogs. And for a long time, I didn't have a good answer.  I'd read various training books here and there, incorporate some of the information into my training and make some of it up as I went along. But trying to explain to someone else what steps I had taken to get my dogs so interested and engaged escaped me. How DID it happen?

Determined to figure it out, I started doing lots of systematic research and begin paying close attention to how I interact on a daily basis with my dogs. I watched and learned from others who had great relationships with their dogs. I had some great "ah-ha" moments and also learned that there were things I could have done so much better!

So, you might ask, why does it matter if your dog listens to you or to use the more training-related term, is "engaged"?

If your preferred approach to interacting with your dogs is a "live and let live" / "dogs will be dogs" view, then the concept of engagement won't be important and this post (and a high percentage of my future posts!) will not be of interest to you. And that's OK - there's not just one "right" way to live with a dog. 

But if your goal is to have a well-behaved dog who can peacefully and happily adapt to living in your world, then engagement is a critical factor. Your dog needs to be taught how to live by our human rules, such as "the world is NOT your toilet"; it doesn't come naturally to them. Being engaged with you eases that transition tremendously and accelerates their ability to learn. Being able to listen and communicate with you increases your dog's sense of security, decreases their stress and greatly improves their adaptability.  

However, the biggest benefit to engagement for me is the deep satisfaction and joy that comes from being able to communicate and connect with a member of another species - it's pretty special!

"OK - you've convinced me....so where do I start?" The good news is that it's not rocket science; I've boiled my research down to the following list. It's not meant to be all-encompassing - just 8 building blocks that I have found effective. Each item is built around my favorite training mantras: "Dogs do what works for them" and "Reinforce the behaviors you want to see repeated".  More detailed write-ups for each item will be posted and linked here in the coming weeks, so be sure and check back!

  1. Be the "Ice Cream Man" at least 80% of the time
  2. Master the "Training Trifecta": using your voice, your body and your SILENCE
  3. Don't be afraid to CORRECTLY use food
  4. Acknowledge your dog regularly
  5. Catch your dog doing something right
  6. Bring your dog along
  7. Tell your dog what's happening
  8. Always be your dog's advocate

And finally, remember that listening is a two-way street. Pay attention to your dog and what they may be trying to communicate to you with their behavior. Be patient and don't assume that "they should know better". They are trying to navigate in a world that is very foreign to them and the more understood they feel , the better connected you two will naturally become. 

Posted on January 11, 2014 and filed under Engagement Series, General Training.