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The Training Relationship: Engagement


Photo: Steph Rocque

Originally published 2/15/2019.

Editor’s note: In her bestselling book Awesome Obedience: A Positive Training Plan for Competition Success, Hannah Branigan explains the basic ingredients needed to train in obedience. These ingredients, as Hannah points out, are not just critical for obedience training—they are the cornerstones of good training practices. For training to be successful, the dog needs to be participating actively, which means focused on the handler, engaged, and invested in the training process. A dog that is engaged knows that his payments come from the handler and is motivated to work for the human. But how do you build engagement? Is it the handler’s job to get the dog’s attention, or is it the dog’s job to request the handler’s attention? Hannah explains in this excerpt from Awesome Obedience. 



Clear communication, characterized by simple, uniform, consistent cues without extraneous noise and indicating an opportunity for reinforcement, forms the foundation of a good training relationship.

The most critical skill for a team to have when embarking on training for performance-sport competition is the mutual skill of “offered attention” or engagement.

For the dog, it’s making the choice—and it must be a choice—to look to the handler. The choice is driven by the knowledge that the handler has some kind of reinforcement that the dog wants; that the dog understands that he can access it through his behavior; and that he’s physically, mentally, and emotionally able to pay attention and earn it.

Each repetition of wait-choose-reinforce puts deposits in the bank account you have with your dog. Over time, rehearsing these skills and repeating this scenario over and over develops a powerful reinforcement history. The cumulative weight of reinforcement history is what defines the training relationship.

When you sit down with a clicker and treats and your dog is aware that you have reinforcement, your dog should be actively trying to access that reinforcement. In a puppy, that will probably look like throwing his body at you or pawing or nibbling at your hand. A savvier dog may look up at your face or perform one of his favorite little behaviors and glance significantly at the source of reinforcement. When you see those behaviors, you know your dog is “engaged,” and that tells you that the stuff you have will actually function as reinforcement within that training session.


If your dog knows you have food but continues to go off sniffing the grass, then the food is probably not going to function as a reinforcer—it won’t strengthen any behavior for practical purposes. Either your dog doesn’t want the food, or the way to access it (the behavior to perform) is so unclear or so difficult that your dog decides that the food is not worth the effort. Either way, you can’t train yet.


You can show your dog the food, put it right in front of his nose, call his name, smooch, snap your fingers, shuffle your feet, or generally prompt or nag your dog into looking at you, and maybe he’ll take a treat or two to appease you. But that’s not building a training relationship.

Think about it this way. I have a small child who needs, wants, and demands a lot of my attention. She’d love to have 100% of my attention, but, like many adults, I have other demands on my time. Usually, if my daughter says “Mama?” I turn to her and say in my most loving voice “Yes, dear?” But on occasion when I’m doing something else that requires my attention—carrying a hot pan, driving in heavy traffic, or just trying to complete a thought—and my daughter says “Mama,” I don’t turn to her right away. When she doesn’t get an immediate response, she escalates the cue: “Mama? Mama? Mama! MAMA! MAMA!!” As she follows me through the house, repeating “MAMA!!! MAMA!!!” and maybe even taps my arm or grabs my clothes, she quickly turns that cue into an aversive stimulus for me. The harder she tries to get my attention, the more aversive the request becomes, and the more stressed and frustrated I get. Maybe (once) I snapped “WHAT?”

Don’t be the toddler with your dog. When your dog feels overwhelmed by the environment, and you repeatedly request, cue, or demand his attention, you are adding to his stress… and likely making yourself an aversive. When that happens, it’s a deduction from your training relationship. That’s not what you want!

The best way to avoid sliding into that dynamic is to flip it around. Let the dog be the toddler and request your attention. That’s a hard leap to make for many of us, especially for those who came through the pet training world. We were taught that you should never let a dog “demand” your attention: “Don’t reinforce that! It creates bad habits!” we were told, and it’s not wrong. Inappropriate behaviors performed to access reinforcement—aka “demand” behaviors—are often the root of annoying pet-dog behavior problems.

Embracing appropriate demand behaviors is a significant difference that we need to absorb when we move up to performance-level training. A performance dog, in obedience or any other sport, that demands to work with you is not a problem. It’s a feature! This is exactly what you want! Of course, you want to put some context on the demanding behavior—when, where, and what categories of behavior will be reinforced—so that you can still live with the beast. But, in general, you want your dog pushing you in every training session.

Wait for your dog to be ready. Wait for him to voluntarily turn to you and seek reinforcement that you control. This requires a huge shift in thinking and a lot of impulse control on your part, but it’s more than worth the effort. Learn to know when your dog is ready, and that’s when you start your training session.


To learn more about the skills needed to be successful in obedience, check out Hannah’s new book Awesome Obedience!

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