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11 tips for keeping your dog engaged during training

Any dog owner knows that the key to successfully training a dog lies in getting that canine to focus on the lesson at hand — and the person who is teaching them. Most dogs find great joy in training challenges, especially in pleasing their teacher. However, dogs are instinctive creatures who can become distracted by the slightest interference, diminishing the lesson's momentum and the owner's enthusiasm. Despite your belief that your dog has "selective deafness" and is ignoring you, in reality, he is not purposefully disobedient; rather, he has not yet learned to follow your lead.
With the right approach and plenty of patience, you can strengthen your dog's focus during training sessions and cut down on frustrating distractions. It takes some time, but with care, consistency, and the following 11 tips, your dog will be looking to you instead of running after the squirrel behind you. Check out these suggestions for keeping your dog's focus where it belongs.
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1. Emphasize positivity at all times.
Even when you are frustrated with your dog, keep your training sessions positive and upbeat. Reward-based training will yield far more positive results than punishing a dog for a mistake. Consider clicker-based training to enforce a style of reward-based training that teaches your dog to think before reacting.
2. Start small.
Set your dog up for success by starting with small steps. If your dog becomes overwhelmed too quickly, he is less likely to pay attention to you. Begin enforcing training in small, enclosed environments with few distractions, such as a living room or den.
As your dog successfully achieves his goals in this small area, move him outside to the backyard and begin again. Eventually, your dog will have more confidence in himself and you, and you can then move on to environments with more distractions.
3. Keep training sessions short.
It is easier for your dog to learn to focus on you and training if you keep the sessions short. Spend small amounts of time several times a week to focus on one command, action, behavior, or cue. Appropriate times may range from 1- 10 minutes. End the session while your dog is still interested in learning the lesson.
4. Stick to one command at a time.
Be realistic about your training goal and focus on one goal at a time. Instituting quick, intense lessons that are designed exclusively around one behavior or command will help your dog stay engaged.
5. Vary your dog's rewards.
Roughly 10 treats per minute will encourage your dog to stay on task during training sessions. Even so, dogs can become bored with the same treats for different tasks. Mix up the food rewards that you use. Consider using "high-reward" treats for newer or more difficult commands that have a higher distraction rate for your dog. A small slice of turkey will get your dog's attention more rapidly than the same old doggy biscuit.
6. Add distractions to mastered commands.
Once your dog has mastered a command or behavior at a short distance, begin to add in distractions. For example, when your dog has successfully learned the stay command, phase in distractions slowly, increasing them over time as long as your dog stays successful. After this step, add additional challenges by increasing the distances at which you practice this command with your dog.
7. Introduce a favorite toy.
Break up the monotony of treat-based rewards by using a toy to grab your dog's attention instead. Choose a toy that interests your dog and use it exclusively for training purposes only. Often a toy can be used to teach the "watch me" command wherein your dog can receive the toy once he looks to you on your signal.
8. Try a two-treat trick to encourage focus.
When you teach your dog to pay attention when you call his name, reward him with praise and a small treat. Hold a treat in each hand, but don’t say anything to your dog. He may try to get the treat in your hand, but don’t respond. As soon as your dog looks at your face, say his name, praise him, and then give him the treat. Alternate the hand that holds treats to keep your dog on his toes.
9. Increase your speed.
As you expand training to your backyard and immediate neighborhood, your dog will experience more distractions such as squirrels or other dogs nearby. When that happens, pick up the speed and encourage your dog into a slow jog or gentle run. The change in speed will distract your dog from the training interruption and get him to refocus on the task at hand.
10. Play past distractions.
Playing may be the one activity that dogs love more than eating treats. Use your dog's love for play to help him steer clear of distractions during training. When you see your dog losing focus, get him to play his way past the cyclist riding by the house or the rabbit near the back fence.
11. End on a positive note.
In addition to keeping training sessions short, always be sure to end them when your dog has performed a behavior or command well. Pushing him beyond this point will strain his ability to retain his focus, and you want the session to end on a high note for your dog and you.
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It is onward and upward for you and your dog from this point. Take your training to the next level by working around your neighborhood or at a local dog park. Remember to be patient, consistent, and positive at all times, and your dog will learn to focus on you as his leader.
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