Actually, I **Can** Get My Dogs’ Attention

I was thinking the other day about how and why I have a dream relationship with my dogs. They are cooperative. They are sweet. They are responsive and easy to live with. You know how I got there? Training and conditioning them with food and playing with them.

They weren’t the most difficult dogs in the world when they came to me, but they weren’t easy, either. Clara was a feral puppy who was growling at every human but me when she was 10 weeks old. Zani is so soft and sensitive that she would have been considered “untrainable” by many old-fashioned trainers. Plus she’s a hound, and you know you can’t get their attention when there is a scent around.

Yeah, actually you can.

a woman with a hat and a small black dog are gazing at each other, giving their full attention

Getting the Dog’s Attention

I published a piece earlier this year about a certain claim that some force trainers make. The post is called “It’s Not Painful. It’s Not Scary. It Just Gets the Dog’s Attention!” I point out that a neutral stimulus that is not attached to a consequence can’t reliably get a dog’s attention, even though many trainers make that claim. A truly neutral stimulus will fade into the background, meaningless. And if there is no promise of a pleasant consequence attached to the attention-getting stimulus, trainers who claim success with it are using some kind of aversive method. You can’t get something for nothing.

This was not really news. It was just Post 3,197 trying to untangle some silly mythology about training.

But I’ve got something to add. If you do enough of the good stuff, you will likely find it easier and easier to get your dogs’ attention. For my dogs, there’s no such thing as a “neutral stimulus” coming from me anymore. For years I have reinforced everything I ask of them with wonderful consequences. So—don’t tell—but I do have the “magical attention signal.”

Presession Pairing

Agility great Susan Garrett calls it “Being the Cookie.” Bob Bailey might say you were inviting Pavlov to get permanently comfortable on your shoulder.

Applied behavior analysts call it presession pairing.


That’s right. ABA folks have a process where the analyst deliberately gains rapport with her client, usually a child. She sets herself up as the source of all sorts of fun before a session starts. The “pairing” part of the term is not between the analyst and the client. It’s between the analyst and good stuff. In terms of classical conditioning, the analyst/trainer is setting herself up as a conditioned stimulus (like Pavlov’s buzzer, a predictor of intrinsically good stuff). In operant terms, she is becoming a secondary reinforcer.

This is a pretty readable scholarly review about it: Developing Procedures to Improve Therapist–Child Rapport in Early Intervention.  In it, the authors operationalize some of the techniques that are used for presession pairing. (Despite the term, presession pairing doesn’t stop when the session starts. Most behavior analysts continue to do it whenever possible.) Some of the methods depend on verbal behavior, but several are rather familiar. I’m going to convert those to dog-talk.

  • Imitating play that the dog initiates
  • Offering items to the dog
  • Creating a new activity with a toy.

Sound familiar? Of course, we would also add food, food, food! And petting, sweet talk, and cuddles with many dogs.

The advantages of gaining rapport with your client or your dog are pretty obvious. One advantage mentioned in the article stuck out to me, though:

Antecedent-based strategies can be used to reduce or eliminate the aversive nature of the therapeutic context (e.g., therapist and therapeutic setting).

This translates well to what we do, too. Training sessions are usually fun, but of necessity, we sometimes have to subject our dogs to unpleasantries. Shots, eye drops, trips to the vet. But if we set ourselves up as consistent givers of good things, we can help our dogs through these experiences with minimal stress. So making ourselves into a giant conditioned reinforcer is not a selfish thing to do. It’s not just about, “Yay, my dogs think I’m great and I can get them to do anything!” It also helps the dogs in a big way.

closeup of the head of a sandy-colored dog with a black muzzle. A woman's hand is on the dog.

Too Clinical? Nope!

The section above may have halfway given some of you the creeps. If you are new to analyzing this stuff, it may feel bad, wrong, manipulative, unnatural—pick your word—to set out so deliberately to get somebody to like you. It might strike you as cold and clinical. But only if you haven’t done it before. Because once you do it, you realize there is nothing artificial about it. It feels good. It’s fun. It improves life for your dogs. I think it’s punishment culture that makes us feel weird about purposeful generosity and kindness. We can get over it.

gingerbread cookie modeled after Gingy from Shrek movie

I have massively paired myself with good stuff over the years with my dogs. As a consequence, I don’t need any special interrupters around here. I don’t need to shake a can of pennies, throw something at the dogs, shock them, apply pressure, or yell. I don’t even need a “positive interrupter,” since that’s just another cue trained with positive reinforcement. I can say about anything to them and in just about any situation, they will reorient to me. Because even if it’s not one of their learned cues, if I’m talking to them, it’s likely that something fun for them will follow. And that’s pretty cool.

I’m interesting. I’m fun. It doesn’t take much for me to get my dogs’ attention.

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Photo credit: Gingy Cookie from Wikimedia Commons, Copyright Jorge Barrios 2006. 

13 thoughts on “Actually, I **Can** Get My Dogs’ Attention

  1. ‘I’m interesting. I’m fun. ‘ Heck, I’m sold on you! I want to hang out with you, you sound awesome 😘

  2. I love this! Maybe reinforcement based trainers don’t take enough credit for the reasons you stated about societal resistance to seeing purposeful kindness, attention and generosity as manipulative or whatever. My kids pooh-pooh my relationship with our dog and say, “That’s because you are the one that feeds him…” but, really, I am the one who make a deliberate effort to be someone who is important to him. That’s not just food – it’s paying attention to him and responding to what he needs (open/close the door, etc.) and teaching him how to successfully get what he wants with behaviors that I will consistently respond to (eye contact, lying down, even a cute head tilt, etc.). I don’t give him cues for no reason or just because I want to “make” him do stuff to show off so me giving him something specific to do is an opportunity.

    1. Beautiful points. Madeline! Yes, a deliberate effort. And not just with human goals in mind, although certainly that’s the case sometimes. But it’s win/win in any case when we do it with R+.

  3. Thank you Eileen:
    This one reminded me once again of Dr Susan Friedman’s words about when you hear trainers of any species say:
    “but there’s virtually nothing written about using Applied Behaviour Analysis with my species”.
    Her reply: Yes there is you just need to work at being a good generaliser of information.

    I would just add from my own experience:
    and think about how to apply it with the particular learner you are working with, no matter the species, circumstances or individual.

  4. As a trainer and a parent, I find this fascinating. Clients sometimes say to me “Oh, Fido will do ANYTHING for you.” It’s good training skill and mechanics, but also that the dog’s entire history with me has been clear, consistent, and good (or great!) This is true for many good trainers, of course, not just me. It’s also why my son LOVES his math tutor, who we hired to help his math skills but also his anxiety about math. She arrives with a bag of fun along with the math. Thanks for posting–I’ll be thinking about this one.

  5. I’ve enjoyed your blog and found this post especially thought provoking. I’ve spent three years trying to train a hound and gotten precious little for my efforts. It didn’t help that he had no interest in food before he was two years old, or that when he was a little puppy any moving of my limbs resulted in very immediate attention – in the form of a lot of pointy teeth gnawing whatever had moved, so looking like fun = looking like prey = not anything I wanted to do.

    People have told me from the beginning – I have to be more fun than what he wants to do. What he wants to do is go running through the woods chasing a scent, or down the road chasing a car. I don’t even think I’m that much fun. I hear you saying the same thing. What I didn’t hear was, how?

    1. Let’s see. I don’t think I could have done it the first time without a great trainer helping me, although now that I did it with Summer, I think I have done better with my next dogs.

      1) Finding food she thought was fantastic. Canned cat food in a food tube. Liverwurst (careful of the fat). Beef jerky. Spray cheese. Use it for training.
      2) Working a whole lot indoors with few distractions and adding them very very gradually. Den to living room to front room to front room with the door open to back porch to back yard to front porch to front walkway to driveway to street OMG we got off the property! Etc.
      3) Games that work the prey instinct like tug, flirt pole, and playing in the water hose for one dog–I swear she was trying to kill the water.
      4) Rewarding EVERY time a dog reoriented to me or recalled to me. With great stuff.

      Premium reinforcers, lots of practice in easy situations, gradual distractions.

      I hope this helps at least a little!


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