Have you ever seen another person out with their dog, and they seem to have captivated their dogs full attention? The dog looks up at their human with an excited and happy grin, seemingly unaware of all of their surroundings. It's as if they are completely uninterested in all the other people, dogs, animals and smells around them. If you have, I bet at one time or another you thought to yourself "It would be so nice if my dog would do that!".
Let's be honest. We all love our dogs, but sometimes it can feel as if they are interested in everything and everyone else but us. Sometimes, it's nice to have a social dog. But, sometimes it would be nice to have our dogs actually listen and focus on us instead of pull us towards every stranger that looks like they may want to pet them (or not), or be so interested in the other dog walking down the street that they seem to not even hear our plea to heel.
Well, we're about to fix that. Today we're going to go over three easy things you can do to make your dog think you are the most exciting thing around.
Yep, you heard me. Take your dog bowl and store it away in some old cabinet for emergencies only, because you don't need it anymore. From here on out, you'll be hand-feeding.
If I could only choose one thing for a client to change in their day-to-day life to drastically improve their relationship with their dog, this would be it. If you're still feeding your dog out of a bowl, you are missing out on one of the easiest and most rewarding ways to interact with your dog.
Hand-feeding forces you to engage with your dog in a more purposeful way.
Even if you were to do nothing more than replace the bowl with your hand, you'd still see an incredible improvement in your dogs focus and food drive in as little as a month. But, you can also use their meals as a training tool to work on behaviors you've been meaning to teach or improve if you're willing to take it a step further.
Our dogs are naturally inclined to work for their food. Think about it, they love puzzle feeders and will usually choose those over a boring bowl of food. By using their food as a reward in training, whether your teaching a new trick or rewarding a good decision while teaching a loose leash walk, your dog is going to love the time and attention you're setting aside every day to engage with them. This is a fantastic way to provide your dog with the mental stimulation they so often lack, fulfilling their needs and creating a bond you never would have imagined was this easy to achieve.
I challenge you to ditch the bowl for just 30 days, to see what hand-feeding can truly do for you and your dog.
Do you have a dog who loves to be pet by anyone and everyone they see? Or, do you have a dog who is nervous of strange people or dogs? What if I told you it doesn't matter? If your goal is to create a stronger bond with your dog or to work on improving your dogs focus, then you need to start being comfortable with saying no.
I see this happen all the time - You take your dog to the park and someone goes "Oh my! Your dog is soooo cute, can I say hi?" (...or even worse they don't ask at all), and before you even have a chance to answer your dog pulls you over to them anticipating all the attention they are about to get. While it seems innocent enough to let your dog, who loves people, say hello and make someone's day, what is actually happening here is your dog is learning to look to other people for a reward. Every time you let this happen your dog is learning to pay less attention to you, and more attention to everyone else. Essentially, all those strangers are becoming more exciting than you are.
On the other hand, if your dog is nervous of strangers and anticipates that when someone asks to say hello you're going to make them sit and accept being pet, your dog is learning that they need to be nervous of everyone that walks by in fear they may be pet. In this case, you are less of a concern than the people around, so your dog is more likely to pay attention to everyone else. Usually, we have the best of intentions and we are trying to "socialize" our dogs to help the issue, all the while not wanting to be rude to anyone who asks. I can't stress this enough, if your dog doesn't enjoy being pet by strangers, that's okay. Being fearful and being uninterested are two different things that can go together, but not always. I always strive to help our dogs feel comfortable and neutral, not fearful. But I don't feel that forcing them to enjoy something is the way to go. If your dog genuinely doesn't enjoy being pet, it's your job to advocate for them and say "No, thank you". When your dog is confident you'll advocate for them, they'll stop worrying about everyone else and put all their trust in you.
The same thing goes with dogs. If you're always letting your dog engage with every other dog they see, then every dog they see is much more interesting than you are. This isn't to say your dog should never interact with other dogs. My rule of thumb is my dog socializes the same way I do - They can interact with my friend's dogs and my family's dogs (AKA, dogs who we know) but they don't get to run up and invade the space of strangers on the street. Can you imagine trying to do your grocery shopping if you felt the need to stop and speak with every single human you passed? You'd never get your shopping done, and you'd probably annoy a few people. Instead, you go in the store with your task in front of you and politely co-exist around others while minding your own business. You might stop and say hi to your neighbor if you run into them, but you're mostly uninterested and don't engage with everyone else. I want you to relate this to your dog. Does you dog really need to go say hello to everyone they see? Probably not.
Long story short, get comfortable setting boundaries and saying no. You want your dog to see you as their source of play, interaction, reward and attention. You don't want them seeing everyone and everything else this way. When someone asks "Can I pet your dog?" it is perfectly ok to respond with "No, thank you". Remember, your dog doesn't exist for everyone else's entertainment, and you have to live with the relationship you create.
Our dogs are well loved, and most of us have a wide array of dog toys spread around the house. As dog owners we usually think of toys as a way to keep our dogs entertained and happy, but the types of toys we use, and the way we use them, can have a huge impact on how our dogs think of us.
If you're trying to improve your dogs focus and ultimately create a relationship where your dog sees you as more exciting than your surroundings, I want you to start asking yourself this question before you purchase any toy - "Will this toy encourage play between me and my dog?".
For my first few dogs I used to buy plush squeaky toys that my dogs would destroy in about 2 days, and it usually kept them busy while I was trying to get work done around the house. Now, I only buy toys that require me to play with my dog. Frisbees, tennis balls, tug toys. I make sure to set aside time every day to ensure I'm giving my dogs both the mental and physical stimulation they need to be fulfilled as the incredible, intelligent, and athletic animals they are. I can promise you, your dog will be much more fulfilled and happy by engaging with you for a quick game of tug, or by going outside and practicing obedience while throwing the frisbee than they would be by having you hand them a stuffed animal and leaving them to their own devices. Use those toys to not only play, but truly engage with your dogs.
The more training you work on with your dog, the stronger your relationship will be. Dogs are social animals and they want you to work with them, even if obedience doesn't sound fun to you, its about working together with your dog. It's about becoming a stronger team. Toys are a great way to incorporate this into your daily life. How is your dog supposed to see you as the most exciting person in the park if all you do is stare at your phone and encourage them to entertain themselves by smelling the grass or saying hi to other dogs? Grab your toy, go to the park, start a really exciting game and then end the game while your dog is still wanting more - they'll be even more excited for next time.
There you have it. Those are three incredibly easy ways to improve your dogs focus, strengthen that relationship, and make yourself more exciting. Happy Training!