Matilda and Cow have gotten good at listening and staying close to me at the dog beach, with or without a leash.
In your living room, your dog does an array of fantastic tricks, comes when you mutter her name under your breath, and always follows you around, anticipating the next game or treat.
Outside, she’s a totally different dog.
She doesn’t listen to anything you have to say – but a rustling leaf never fails to get her attention.
She won’t so much as sit without a ton of repetition, pleading and negotiation.
And you’re lucky if she comes the third time you call her – only after she’s finished investigating a patch of grass.
Why Your Dog Won’t Listen To You Outside
There’s two things I’m reminded of when my dogs are so engrossed in the environment that I cannot get their attention.
Maybe not in those exact terms, but it’s amazing how much information is all around us, and how little mental bandwidth we have to process it all.
So, we learn to filter out the information that’s truly important. And we’re not perfect at it. I checked my email and Facebook 200 words into writing this article, even though I’m quite aware that giving into distractions makes a simple article take much longer to write.
My point is, we humans spend our whole lives surrounded by an extraordinary amount of information, and we never completely learn to zero in on what’s important.
How can I expect my dogs to perfectly filter out millions of bits of information at just 3 years old, with a canine mind that processes a rich world of scents and sounds that I could never begin to imagine?
Here’s the second thing I think about: a yo mama joke.
Yo Mama’s so cheap, she can’t even afford to pay attention.
This is a double-whammy: a yo mama joke and a pun.
But is attention really a currency, a limited resource? Certainly! Especially for dogs.
If we want our dogs to pay us their precious, valuable attention, we must work at it.
How To Start Winning Your Dog’s Attention Outside
You can’t expect your dog to come when called moments after you let her off-leash at a crowded dog park for the first time in her life. There are butts to sniff.
You have to start small and easy.
Don’t even start training your dog in public right away. Start in your backyard.
If you always let your dog out, without going outside with her, she won’t realize that you still matter when she’s outside. Humbling, but true.
When she’s outside doing dog things, surprise her by bringing her a picnic, even if it’s just her bowl of kibble – though a bowl of homemade BARF diet would be nice!
Train outside for a few minutes each day. Soon, she’ll start paying more attention.
But don’t just train. Play.
- If she likes to play with toys, some balls and plushes that you’ll only use outdoors, and put them away when you’re done. Don’t let her play with them inside.
- Run around like a maniac, and give her a treat when she catches you – or reward her by falling to the ground and letting her lick your face.
- Try some simply nosework games outside.
In short – BE INTERESTING.
Getting Your Dog To Listen In Public
After you’ve worked on the steps above for a few weeks – or a few days, if she’s really getting the hang of it – go to the park. Not a dog park, dog beach, or anywhere she’d be off-leash. Go to a regular human park.
Don’t stress over perfect leash manners, or even getting her attention. Give her plenty of opportunities to sniff and get her bearings. Allow her to become familiar with the environment.
Stop and start, change directions and run in zig-zags. She should be wearing a comfortable harness, not a collar clipped to her leash – you don’t want to jerk her around. You want to be so interesting that she has to pay attention to you to keep up.
As with most things, the results vary on the dog. Most dogs enjoy running.
Take care not to let your dog overheat, especially in the summer and/or you have a brachycephalic dog like a pug. Bring water.
Again, use toys, treats and games to engage your dog, but don’t force it.
You need to bring your dog to the park often, and keep up with the games and activities, to get her used to listening outside, even in public.
Keeping Your Dog’s Attention When She’s Off-Leash Outside
As your dog gets pretty good at paying attention to you at home and on-leash in public, you can begin to take her to public, off-leash destinations like a dog park or dog beach.
Dog parks and dog beaches are controversial because you and your dog will be surrounded by strangers. You don’t know if the people are going to watch their dogs, if they have control over them, or if their dogs might be pushy or aggressive.
Sometimes, your dog will meet fun playmates, but you have to be her advocate. You have to keep an eye on her constantly. Keep your phone in your pocket.
I like to go to the dog park or dog beach before noon. There’s always a few dogs, but it’s not overwhelming. If a playful puppy starts annoying my dogs, we can easily distance ourselves. But they can still choose to play with other dogs on occasion.
When teaching your dog to listen at a dog park, you definitely need to go during off-peak hours.
Again, let your dog play with other dogs and do her own thing.
Odds are, she’ll actually choose to engage with you when she’s ready, and for that, you can reward her with her favorite games, toys and treats.
Dealing With Setbacks
Your dog isn’t always going to choose you over the environment. Punishing her, or even changing the tone of your voice will give her even more of a reason not to pay attention to you outside.
In fact, sniffing is sometimes a displacement behavior. When dogs feel frustrated with training, or stressed because you’re stressed because they’re failing to behave as you wish, they may sniff the ground as a way to avoid confrontation, and to show that they want to “keep the peace.”
If your dog isn’t paying attention, but she’s otherwise safe, try hiding. See how long it takes for her to look for you – when she does, shower her with affection. She’ll learn that it’s a good thing to keep an eye on you!
Don’t let your dog off-leash in a risky situation. There’s no need to test her attention span near a busy road or a group of questionable dogs. It’s better to have a spacey dog that needs a leash than a dead dog.