Liz Mahony is an experienced Dog Trainer and Holistic Therapist for all animals. In her monthly column, Liz aims to promote mutual respect between carer and dog. Contact Liz at
I’m always interested in reading articles about training dogs. However, in most of those articles I read about improving a dog’s recall, getting a dog to sit and stay anywhere, I rarely read about what I consider to be the most important command: getting your dog to focus on you whenever and wherever necessary. That means that you must be able to get him to look at you despite any fearful or exciting distractions going on. As far as I’m concerned, once your dog can concentrate on you, you can teach him anything else after that.
Here are a few pointers about the focus cue. If your dog is not looking at you when you ask for a command, he’s probably got his mind on devilment elsewhere. It also generally means that he doesn’t respect you enough to accord you the time of day. In moments of excitement, fear or distress, he will run elsewhere rather than focus on you to solve his problems, give him a command or release him to go and play or investigate whatever has got his attention.
If you and your dog both trust each other, this focus doesn’t have to be so concentrated that he can look nowhere else. As far as I’m concerned, I’m quite happy for a nervous or fearful dog to look at any oncoming ‘perceived danger’ and then to concentrate on me so that I can help him. If a dog is nervous that could mean moving him away out of range from the oncoming dog or person and putting myself in between him and it, crossing the road, or doing something that allows my dog to relax so he can look at me, perform a command, accept a treat and receive lots of praise. The more we practise this, the more responsive he becomes.
The same applies to a hyperactive dog. You behave quietly around him, taking deep grounding breaths and showing him very ‘high-value’ treats that are irresistible. At the beginning, he may sit and look for a second, snatch the treat and run. Patience is the order of the day. Feed Jackpots in slow time – that’s five to six treats one after the other with loads of praise. By the time he gets through the Jackpot, the object of excitement or interest may well be long gone. And anyway, there’s much more on offer in the form of food right where he is. As you reward with treats and praise, that’s also the time to gently place him on a lead so that you can continue the positive training.
If your dog snatches a treat and runs off, it means he rewards himself twice: high-value treats from you and then fun and games with whatever has caught his attention; he’s not respectful enough of you and you need to do more training at home where there are fewer distractions. The best place to teach good focus is at home and every mealtime. Prepare his food and then hold the bowl up near your face. ‘Fido, Look’. He makes eye contact,‘Good’, and his immediate reward is his meal ready in front of him. Once he’s got the message with his main meals, then practise it at other times of the day with your ‘high-value’ treats plus cuddles and praise for making that eye contact. Now, he’s hooked because if you ask him to look at you, that indicates something for him! And, all dogs are opportunists so they’re not going to miss what could be rewarding.
You can practise all the basic commands in and around the house using the focus cue so that your dog is hanging on your every word. You practise them in every room in the house. Then you try asking for them outside in your garden but ensure you have him on a lead at the beginning.
When he’s enjoying these games and the treats that follow, you can ensure that he comes every time to the recall. If you’ve practised this cue inside and around the home, then you can try him on a long lead in the garden. No matter what is going on, he can’t run away, and you have the chance to get him to look at you from a distance and to call him to you with the promise of a Jackpot. No respectable dog can refuse that!
If you’re really smart, you’ll train him to return to you, either sitting in front of you and making eye contact, or sitting either side that you indicate and looking up while you produce delicious Jackpots. The quicker he returns to you, the more committed he has become in the game. And now both of you are having fun and getting what you both want!