How to Get Your Dog's Attention

Learn how to teach your dog to look at you on cue, check in with you, and pay attention to you on walks. Turn attentiveness into a game, so your dog wants to focus on you.

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA
6-minute read
Episode #172

Pick a Cue to Mean “Look at Me”

Your second session can take place after a short break, or hours later – it doesn’t matter as long as you and your dog are up for it. In the meantime, pick a cue that you’ll use to mean “Look at me.” It could be the word “Look,” or “Banana,” or your dog’s name. Be aware that if your dog has spent years without having his name mean more to him than random noise, it will be harder to teach him that, after all this time, that sound is suddenly relevant. In that case, it’s better to choose another word.

For your second session, set up exactly the way you did for the first. Do a couple of warm-up reps and watch your dog’s body language closely. When you feel confident that you know exactly when he’s about to turn to you, you’re ready to teach Zip his cue. Just as he’s about to turn to you, say that cue. Over your next several practice sessions, Zippy will associate the sound of the cue with his own behavior of turning toward you. The cue now becomes a signal that if he turns to you at that moment, he’ll net a tasty reward.

Practice in Lots of Different Situations

You’re not done, though! So far, you’ve been practicing at home, in a quiet place without a lot to distract Zippy from you. Good smells and oblivious squirrels turn attention into a whole different game. To build up your dog’s “attention muscle,” try practicing in these situations:

  • in the hallway of your building (if you live in an apartment house)

  • in your front yard or on your stoop (dog on leash, please!)

  • toward the end of a walk (when your dog’s worked off some energy)

  • with your dog on leash and a favorite toy on the floor just out of reach; when your dog turns to you, give him the okay to grab the toy, and play with him

  • with your dog on leash and a dry biscuit on the floor just out of reach; when your dog turns to you, mark and treat, then give him the okay to grab the biscuit

  • when your dog has just barely gotten interested in a pile of garbage (reward lavishly for attending to you now!)

Watch your dog and figure out which smells, sights, and sounds fascinate him the most. Many dogs find fire hydrants and shrubbery attractive, since these items tend to draw a lot of pee-mail. As you approach an interesting hydrant or shrub, ask your dog to look at you, mark, and reward with the okay to go sniff. Feel free to get a treat in there, too.

Reward Spontaneous Check-ins

Attention that your dog offers spontaneously is golden. Say you’re walking down the street -- does Zippy glance at you without being asked? Mark and treat the attention that he offers you. If he’s playing in the park and breaks off his play to come to you or even to look at you, mark and treat. The more you reinforce (strengthen) looking at you and checking in with you, the more your dog will do these things, and the stronger his habit of attentiveness will grow.

Bonus Game

Good old “Find It” is one of my stupidly easy favorite ways to amuse a dog. Toss a treat, dog finds it and snarfs it up; toss another treat, dog finds it and snarfs it up; et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. If you use a treat your dog halfway likes, I can pretty well guarantee you that you will be bored loooong before Dogalini is.


About the Author

Jolanta Benal, CPDT-KA, CBCC-KA

Jolanta holds professional certifications in both training and behavior counseling and belongs to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers and the International Association of Animal Behavior Consultants. She also volunteered with Pet Help Partners, a program of the Humane Society of the United States that works to prevent pet relinquishment. Her approach is generally behaviorist (Pavlovian, Skinnerian and post-Skinnerian learning theory) with a big helping of ethology (animal behavior as observed in non-experimental settings).