Teaching Your Dog to Pay Attention! : Step 1 in Reducing Reactive Behaviors on Trail

Does your dog bark at other dogs on trail? Do they whine and carry on while lunging after squirrels that cross their path? Is it hard to enjoy a hike because your dog is over-reacting to everything around them?

We all know someone with that “perfect” trail dog. The dog that hikes in heel position or just behind their person, who never chases squirrels off trail, and definitely never barks at other dogs on trail. And while some of those dogs may have arrived on this earth with that temperament, for many (most) dogs these calm trail behaviors have to be learned.

This post is all about teaching your dog to pay attention (defer) to you. By teaching your dog to watch you for cues on how to react in new and exciting situations, you will be better equipped to encourage calm behavior next time you take your dog on a hike (or anywhere).

“Just Look at Me!”

It can be a frustrating and helpless experience to be on the other end of the leash with a dog who is pulling and barking. Especially when no matter what you do, your dog doesn’t respond to voice commands or leash tugs.

I have been in this situation before, trying anything to get my dog to just look at me. Let alone sit or come or perform whatever tasks I want her to do. It’s frustrating! And if other people are around, it’s embrassing as well.

With smaller dogs, I have just picked them up and walked away. But with a larger dog, I have been left in a tug-of-war as I tried to pull the dog backward until I could gain some semblance of “control.”

If your dog isn’t leashed, then this annoying and embarrassing issue can quickly become a safety concern. A dog that doesn’t know how to pay attention and look to their human for input during exciting or anxiety-producing situations is at higher risk for injury. Whether that is from running up to a strange dog, running across the road in front of cars, or running into the woods after a wild animal.

Teaching your dog to pay attention to you is a process and not a quick solution. Your dog may never be a good candidate for off-leash hiking. But the more your dog pays attention to you, the better you can avoid embarrassing or dangerous situations.

And remember, attention goes both ways. It is hard for your dog to pay attention to you if you are ignoring them. There are two ends to every leash.

Now, before we launch into some vocabulary and training protocols, I need to give credit where it is due. My training/behavior modification techniques have been heavily influenced by Dr. Karen Overall, Dr. Sophia Yin, and the CARE for Reactive Dogs protocol.

Dr. Karen Overall has written a couple of very helpful books on dog behavior. Here is an Amazon link (I am an amazon associate and will earn from qualifying purchases), that I use regularly at work as a veterinarian: The Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. This book has helpful detailed protocols for helping dogs (and cats) with behavioral concerns.

The Importance of Deference

While we say we want our dogs to look at us and pay attention, what we are really asking for is deference from our dogs.

The Oxford dictionary defines deference as “humble submission and respect.” For the purposes of behavior modification protocols with a reactive dog, I don’t like to use the word submission. There are too many schools of dog training that use the term submission in an Alpha vs submissive dog connotation. And teaching your dog deference is not about dominating your dog.

But the respect part is key. Your dog needs to learn to respect you and look to you for guidance when they are anxious or aroused. If your dog doesn’t pay attention to you, it will be nearly impossible to work on any type of behavior modification.

Just like people, dogs have a social system that is based on deference to others. And dogs can have different roles and responses in different contexts.

When your dog defers to you, they (as a social individual) are assessing an ongoing situation and waiting calmly to get input from you (another member of their group) before they pursue the next set of behaviors or social interactions.

The following quote from Dr. Karen Overall, sums this up nicely:

Dogs are social and, like other social species, will communicate when they are uncertain or needy to other members of their group. This means that they are well adapted to look to their people for guidance. Dogs often become problems for their people when they cease to look to people for guidance, or they never do this, or if they cannot do this.

From Overall KL: Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats
“Protocol for Deference” handout

Since every person reading this has a dog at a different stage of deference and relaxation training, some readers of this article will need to start at the very beginning, while others are already past the basics. Regardless, we will start at the very beginning in this blog post.

Tips for Good Training Sessions

Start Indoors

Like any life skill, good habits start in your day to day routine. A dog must be calm, relaxed, and have good impulse control at home before they can demonstrate these skills on a trail.

All skills listed below should first be trained in a low distraction environment. Oftentimes the best low-distraction area is your living room or a bedroom without other pets or people present. Remember, even the best-behaved dogs might not be able to pay attention in pandemonium

Clear Communication

Before you actually start training, remember that clear communication is very important. As Dr. Overall puts it,

Every time there is uncertainty in a situation there is the potential for anxiety. Every time there is the potential for anxiety there is the chance to make a mistake in a behavioral response and to learn to reinforce that mistake.

From Overall KL: Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats
“Protocol for Deference” handout

So while your dog must learn to watch you quietly and calmly, looking for signals about which behaviors are wanted, you must be clear in signals. It is also important that you are reliable and humane to reduce anxiety during training.

Since anxiety creates more chances for mistakes in behavioral responses, there must be no violence or physical abuse in your training protocol for this to work. While a physical punishment may get you quick “results,” it will not help your dog in the long run.

Because of this, these protocols will use mostly positive reinforcement and negative punishment, some negative reinforcement, but no positive punishment.

Need a refresher on what exactly the paragraph above means? Check out Dr. Sophia Yin’s poster on the 4 categories of operant conditioning.

To summarize: the basic principles needed to work on deference with your dog are clear communication, no punishment, and ignoring undesirable behaviors.

A Note on Treats

Since we are using a mostly positive reinforcement style of training/behavior modification, it is important to find treats that your dog likes and others that they LOVE!

For low distraction and routine training sessions, lower-value treats can be used. I typically use some of my dog’s normal kibble for everyday training sessions. She likes her food and if I take it out of her already measured daily allotment, I don’t have to worry about feeding extra calories if we are training a lot one day.

In high distraction environments, we upgrade to diced up hot dogs, strips of boiled chicken, pieces of cheese, or store-bought moist and smelly dog treats. Every dog is different, so find something your dog is highly motivated to obtain. Home-cooked treats can be a great option for dogs with dietary restrictions.

Since these moist, high-value treats can be a bit messy to carry around in your pockets, I recommend using a treat pouch for all early training. This also makes the treats easier to access quickly.

We use this simple one that I found on Amazon a couple of years ago. I lost our first one on a hike in the woods when it wasn’t attached well enough to my pocket. But version 2.0 now joins us on most of our walks and hikes.

I am an Amazon Associated and will earn from qualifying purchases.

When feeding treats, try not to feed your dog from your finger tips. This increases the chance for an unintentional bite. Try to open up your hand flat when offering the treat to your dog.

Training Your Dog to Watch You

Training your dog to make eye contact is an important first step in deference. Before starting this training, please be aware that staring can be an aggressive behavior for dogs. But there is a distinct difference between staring and looking.

Stares are associated with “hard” face muscles. When you are staring you’re not blinking as frequently and the muscles around your eyes may be tight. You can soften your gaze by softening your eyes, blinking slowly, and moving your focus around.

If your dog has any reactivity to your staring, your dog will likely benefit from a consultation with a veterinary behaviorist.

As stated above, to start training a “watch me” or “attention” command, start in a quiet room with no distractions. Find a good reward/ treat and plan a short duration training session.

You are going to be using shaping behavior to accomplish this task. This means that you will begin by rewarding small approximations of what you want your dog to do.

If your dog already knows how to sit, you can start by having your dog sit. If not, don’t worry. We will talk about sitting calmly after your dog is looking and paying attention later in this article.

Step 1: Take a small treat in one of your hands. Hold the treat between your index finger and your thumb. And show it to your dog.

Step 2: Once your dog is aware of the treat, swipe it up past your eye (as if pointing towards your eye).

Step 3: Your dog should make eye contact then, even if just very briefly. Mark the desired behavior by saying “yes” (or using another marker word or a clicker if your dog has been clicker trained).

Step 4: After marking the desired behavior, promptly feed your dog the treat.

Repeat steps 1-4 until your dog is quickly and easily performing this task.

Step 5: Make the same hand signal with your index finger and thumb, but don’t hold a treat.

Step 6: Sweep your hand up past your eye in the same manner and again mark the behavior with “yes” or your clicker.

Step 7: Quickly feed your dog a treat from the hand opposite the one you signaled with.

Repeated steps 5-7 until your dog can hold a few seconds of eye contact.

Step 8: Add a verbal cue. Say “watch” or “attention” or your dog’s name (just pick one cue word), before repeating steps 5-7.

Repeat step 8 until you can say the verbal cue and your dog looks at you before you make the hand signal.

Remember (as mentioned above) to keep training sessions short, as holding eye contact can be a difficult behavior for a dog. Training sessions should be only 2-3 minutes long 4-5 times a day.

Once your dog can reliably “watch ” you, start making the practice more challenging, by slowly adding small distractions.

You can also consider adding a release word to signal that your dog no longer needs to watch you and can turn her attention to the treat you are now ready to feed her.

Sitting Calmly for Attention

After your dog can look at you, add in the sit as a calm deferential behavior.

Dr. Karen Overall calls this a sit to defer protocol and states that “the exercise is simple, but the mindfulness involved is not.” She also reminds us to remember that we are ALWAYS signaling and dogs read non-verbal cues better than people do.

The point of this protocol is for your dog to cease motion and calmly attend for information.

In this program, dogs receive what they want (oftentimes interaction with you) by attending to you, sitting, and deferentially awaiting attention. The sit does not have to be prolonged. The sit can be as short as seconds as long as the dog’s bottom is on the ground and the dog is quietly looking at the person. You can exchange food/treats for this behavior.

Like training your dog to watch you, training a sit starts with a quiet environment, treats, and marking the desired the behavior. Below Dr. Sophia Yin teaches a dog to defer by sitting calmly. Dr Yin often refers to her version of this protocol as “sit to say please.”

Most dog’s will offer a sit naturally as they are attending to you, mark this with a “yes” and reward your dog promptly.

Some dogs may require a little luring at the beginning. To do this, place a treat between your index finger and thumb and raise it up and over your dog’s head. Most dogs will eventually sit down as they look up to take the treat. Reward the sit with a treat.

Once your dog understands what you are asking for you can stop luring and simply use a hand signal and verbal cue to ask for a sit.

Like your “watch” command, practice this repeatedly in short sessions. And once your dog can reliably sit to defer indoors with no distractions, start slowly adding distractions to your training sessions.

If you’re still wondering why sitting is such an important behavior for your dog to offer you, consider this. As Dr. Overall discusses in her “Protocol for Deference,” deferential behaviors allow a dog respite from a situation. The dog learns that if he or she responds to a request to sit, the person will help decide what the next best behavior is.

This provides great relief to dogs that are anxious about deciding what an appropriate response is. It also helps the dog calm and reduces misunderstanding.

Moving from the Living Room to the Trail

Once your dog has mastered the core steps of deference at home, slowly transition from the living room to the backyard to the sidewalks to the trails. Make sure your dog can “watch” and “sit” calmly in each environment before moving to the next. If your dog struggles with a specific location, back up a bit and/or increase the incentive for paying attention by bringing better treats to the training session.

Remember, you learned to swim in a shallow pool long before you ever swam in the ocean. Help your dog succeed by setting him up for success. Give your dog the mental space he needs so that he is able to attend and respond to you.

Train a Walking Watch

Before you hit the trails it may also be helpful to train a walking watch. More than just heeling, your dog should be able defer to and watch you while moving, just as well as he does while sitting.

Since this post is already getting a bit long to read in one sitting, we will keep this part simple. Follow the steps for training “watch,” but start walking while you ask for the “watch” behavior. You will likely be able to start on step 5 this time, skipping steps 1-4.

A walking watch can help you get your dogs attention as you lead them past or away from situations that typically result in anxiety and reactivity for your dog.

For more information about creating space from your dog’s triggers, check out this post on social distancing for reactive dogs.

Start Today

There is no better time to start training your dog to be deferential than today. And all dogs can benefit from working on calm and deferential behaviors.

So wherever your dog already is in his ability to complete these tasks, try to fit in a short less than 5-minute session every day where you are simply asking your dog to pay attention to you calmly in a new situation.

These behaviors can also be reinforced in little ways throughout your day. Can your dog look at you and calmly sit before you feed him dinner or before you open a door to let him outside? Can she sit and look to you for an invitation to jump up on the couch or bed?

Again, this isn’t about dominance, this is about respect. In the same way you would ask a friend if they have a preference about what TV show the two of you watch (instead of just walking in a room and picking what you want to watch), your dog should be seeking your input in day to day decisions and activities. You negotiate with your dog by offering rewards for correct behaviors, then reinforce the habits you want them to keep.

Really, it’s no different than praising a family member for washing the dishes and encouraging children to make a habit of cleaning up after themselves. It’s not dominance, but normal social behavior to encourage deference in your dog.

And ultimately, a deferential dog is a happier dog. When paired with a human who is sending clear and calm signals, deferential dogs are less anxious and less likely to develop inappropriate behavioral responses.

So start encouraging deferential behaviors today and every day. Start indoors and work your way outside and onto the hiking trails.

Happy hiking everyone!

Kate and Glia

P.S. We are just getting started on our reactive dog care series. If you want to check out the blog posts we have already written on this topic, following this link. And if you have topics you would love to read about, let us know in the comments below.


Kate is the writer of Pawsitively Intrepid. She has spent the last 9 years working full-time as a veterinarian, treating dogs and cats. But as of June 2023, she is taking a year to travel with her dog, volunteer, and work on some passion projects.

One thought on “Teaching Your Dog to Pay Attention! : Step 1 in Reducing Reactive Behaviors on Trail

  1. Thank you very much for the helpful, elaborated tips for training our dog. It’s very helpful and easy to read. Sincerely Artjom. Let the training begin!

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