Recently we had a less than spectacular human-dog greeting at my house. I was embarrassed. But I was also puzzled. Generally well-mannered dog ignores known cues – it happens. But why does it happen?
Over the next few days I observed my dogs in a variety of situations. My AHA! moment happened when we stumbled upon a park we’d never investigated. New smells, different trails…the sun was shining – it was a great time to explore and practice skills. We picked a direction and headed down the trail.
“Melody” (cue for Look at Me)
She barely glanced up, then returned to sniffing the ground. Usually she would maintain eye contact until I made another request.
“Here” (cue for “Nose to hand”, which includes a recall)
Nothing. Not even an ear twitch. I counted 1-2-3-4-5. No response. I watched her body – tail slightly tucked, body tense and forward, ears forward, nose disappearing into the ground, and I could hear her nose sniffing ferociously. She was in a different universe that didn’t include the person holding the leash.
I was fascinated. Her body told me she was completely engaged. I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I waited and kept watching her. Several minutes went by before I noticed her tail move slightly toward a neutral position and her body shift back ever so slightly.
Then I counted 1-2-3-4 and there she was, nose touching my hand.
Was it the new park, the intriguing smell on the ground, or a combination of the two that caused her to ignore me? I don’t know. Watching her body I don’t believe she really ignored me. She had tunnel vision. It was clear that she couldn’t hear the cue, process it and then act at that precise moment. Her focus on the scent was too intense.
When the world all around is more engaging to my dog than I am, and tunnel vision sets in, that’s my cue to lower my expectations. And reach for another tool (known cue). If I forget to use the tools in my toolbox (like I did during the not so great greeting) I’m likely to end up irritated. One dog with tunnel vision plus an irritated human is not an equation for success.
Ah, and that’s where practice is important. Practicing foundation skills is as much for me as it is for my dogs. How many different ways can I regain the attention of my dog?
“Here” (known cue)
“Look” (known cue)
Touch to get attention (gentle touch to side)
Clap my hands
Squeak a toy
Bounce a ball
Use a happy voice to call their name
“Cookie” (the rarest of all cues in my house, but it is the one that gets everyone to the cookie jar and refocused on me…every time. It's reserved for emergencies).
The challenge for me is to remain calm and remember that my dog is not intentionally ignoring me – she’s intently focused. And then decide which tool to try next so that I can get her attention if I need to. Or maybe it’s a situation where I can let her just be focused (like at the park).
Back to that embarrassing incident at the door…looking back body language said everything – tails wagging, noses glued to the guest, bodies pressing forward, the guest showering attention on the dogs. No one really heard the cue. I don’t know why this particular person elicited the response she got, but in hindsight it was definitely a “cookie” moment.
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