Everyday Training: Engagement

When I hike with my dog, I want him to be engaged with me.  Off leash, when I say his name, I expect Jake to look at me and check in. I'm not afraid to admit it, right now, this works about 85% of the time, without having to say his name a second time or nag him with the collar.  I might make the excuse to myself that he is a high energy dog or that he that isn't even a year yet.  In reality, we are working towards 100% response when I say his name, because that is the expectation. To get there, we have to practice some form of engagement play everyday. The result is that I thoroughly enjoy being walking through a forest or at the beach with Jake, and I am certain that he enjoys the off-leash freedom that comes from this training.

The concept of engagement in dog training is that the dog pays attention to you so that you can give him a command.  But how do you get there?

Before you can get to obedience, you have to conquer engagement.  How can you train a dog a command if that doesn't pay attention to you?  If you are in a class or have a private trainer, a good trainer should introduce you a command called "watch" or "look". These commands train engagement.  Every time you say "watch" or "look" (or whichever your command of choice) your dog should look at you. You could do this one standing in the kitchen, with your dog sitting next to you.

As with any new command that you are working, you could do this through positive reinforcement.  My favorite method, and the one that worked best with Jake, was Marker Training. As a matter of fact, everything that we have done since then has been based on using markers.

What is Marker training?  It's another name for Clicker training, where you use a sound or, in my case with Jake, I used the word YES to convey that he did something right and would get a treat.  Why did I choose to use a word instead of the clicker?  This is subjective.  As a pup, we were not doing anything that was so detailed it had to be broken down into parts.  Marker training is great for puppies, because sometimes, in the excitement of puppy training, you forget to bring your clicker...THEN what do you do?

I digress...again.  Anyway, back to engagement.  Jake and I used to play a game where he would sit next to me. I would say "Look", when he looked at me I would say "Yes" then give him a treat.  After a few times, I would work on duration, where he would remain looking at me, and I would look away.  After about 10 or 15 seconds, if I looked back and he was still looking at me, I would mark it with a "Yes" and treat him. Sounds silly, but it works.

Teaching dog to engage with you on command is one philosophy.  Engagement on command.  And it works.

But after trying different styles of training (remember that I am just a layperson, and I have not at all exhausted or tried all styles) right now my philosophy isn't engagement on command.  I believe that dogs see training as a game.  And to keep them engaged, it should be a FUN game.  THAT fun, will keep them engaged.  Think like a kid...Kids are GREAT at turning things into games, when they play with dogs.  If only we could get them to inject some obedience in their games.

Check out this video that demonstrates an unstructured engagement.  Notice that the trainer does not spit out commands, but keeps the momentum flowing.  If the puppy does not perform something, then the pup doesn't get a treat.  But the treats and playing are what keep the dog engaged:

YouTube Video: Engagement Training at the Michael Ellis School

You, as your dog's trainer, can turn engagement training into a game, just like in this video. It's basically leading the dog around, having them perform commands, when they do something you like, you say YES and give them a treat.  This is an unstructured training session. Instead of thinking, "I'm going to teach my dog sit", you should be thinking "let's see if I can keep my dog's attention, and get him/her to do stuff".  I love this method, because it sets the groundwork for more positive reinforcement training.

I've watched all of the Michael Ellis' basic training videos. I had been training Jake with this method since he was 8 weeks old.  When he was finally old enough to join puppy training, my thought at the time was I was just taking him for purely socializing (for me and for him). He already knew many of the basic commands, through engagement sessions like the ones in the video.  However, as we continued to learn new commands, I found that because of teaching him engagement, he would learn a new command after only 5 tries.

Here's to methods using Love and Respect!! Happy Training.

P.S. If you have an adult dog that loves treats, sessions like this would give them a great workout, and train them at the same time. It is a not threatening method because you are not forcing a dog to perform a command.  You are working with his instincts to engage with him.  Pretty soon, your dog will think of you as the thing that dishes out really tasty treats and they will do anything for you.