Attention Training

Stimulation can be helpful to train dogs that are easily distractedEvery school teacher and orator knows the importance of gaining and holding your audience’s attention. How can you teach or get your point across if you don’t have your pupil’s or audience’s undivided attention?

A significant problem encountered by many dog owners is recall, which is to come when called. An owner of a stubborn Labrador that completely ignored her on walks consulted me. The Labrador would put his nose down, his tail up and switch everything off except his sense of smell. He was in his own little “olfactory” world following trails of scents of all sorts of interesting things like rabbits and other dogs. The dog’s sense of smell is amazing and they can literally construct an image in their brain based on smell alone; the other senses become redundant and are consequently turned down or off. I remember reciting some advice to a lady owner of a Labrador that was given to me by a dog trainer, “you need to make yourself more interesting to him.” Probably the bravest thing I’ve ever said to any lady and I am pleased to see that Lady Gaga took my advice with her dress made of meat. That will get any dog’s attention!

Attention is needed before training begins
Just how do you get a dog’s attention when there are so many competing and interesting things for them to explore or do when they’re on a walk? Dogs should not be fed before walks to avoid a potential stomach problem, which means that they should be hungry. Therefore, using a very small number of really tasty training treats can be a good way to gain a dog’s attention.

Remotely controlled vibrating collars have been used to gain the attention of deaf dogs for some time. Once the dog has been alerted that the trainer wants their attention, the dog will start to look for them. The owner can then provide commands using hand signals and these can be made more clearly if the owner wears white “Mickey Mouse” gloves like the traffic directing gloves policemen wear.

Recently a two year old Boston Terrier from Essex called Zippy passed the Kennel Club’s highest obedience award. His owner, Vicky Tate, used a vibration collar to gain his attention and “dramatic” hand signals that enabled him to achieve gold in the Good Citizen Dog Scheme.

Zippy was responding to the vibratory stimulation from his collar as a message to look for his owner. There are many types of stimulation that can be used to gain a dog’s attention. To be effective they have to be annoying or the dog will ignore the stimulation. Types of annoying remote collar stimuli include vibration, ultrasonic sound, spray (scented and unscented) and electrical stimulation. Yes, electrical stimulation at low levels is annoying and cannot be described as pain according to The International Association for the Study of Pain.

Electronic collars are great for attention training because the intensity of the electrical stimulation is adjustable so that they can be fine tuned to suit every dog on their day. The fine degree of control of the intensity of electrical stimulation is not seen in vibration, ultrasonic, or spray collars.

The principle of attention training using an electronic collar is that it uses a continuous low intensity stimulation to communicate with the dog. The stimulation is stopped once the trainer has gained the dog’s attention. It is fundamental that the foundation of being able to gain and maintain the dog’s attention is mastered before any other training is started. Trainers will often combine attention training using an electronic collar with food treats to optimise this training. This is a perfectly safe technique to enhance dog training by owner-trainers.

Once accustomed to stimulation, dogs usually train without activation being required
As a parent engrossed in a film on TV occasionally I would become aware of a “Dad…..Dad….Dad…Dad…Dad…Dad”. I don’t know how long my son had stood behind me calling “Dad” but eventually I became aware he was there. He didn’t stop calling to me until he’d gained my attention. Once you are aware of the calls it breaks through whatever you are engrossed in and becomes annoying. You put the film on pause and like a good dad turn and say, “Yes Son?” This is the same principle that electronic collars use to gain your dog’s attention. The annoying stimulation doesn’t stop until the dog gives its attention to the owner. Ultimately the dog learns to avoid any stimulation by giving their attention to the owner immediately when it is requested. The success of electronic collars is best assessed by elimination of the need to activate any stimulation at all and this is often the case.

This technique is ideal for dogs where basic obedience training using reward techniques alone has failed or broken down. It is also excellent for enhanced off lead control because the collar is operated by a hand-held remote control. The trick is to ensure you have the dog’s attention in the first place.
David Chamberlain BVetMed., MRCVS.
Veterinary Consultant to PetSafe®

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