Some years ago I was training dogs to work off leash on New York City streets. Doing this, as opposed to teaching dogs to work off leash in a training center, fenced area or anywhere in the suburbs, I learned something fantastic. Dogs know exactly how much of your attention is on them and how much isn’t. I do not use the word exactly lightly. When you are working someplace where traffic is whizzing by a few feet from where your dog is off leash, you need one hundred percent of your attention on the dog, not ninety-nine percent. Do you want to window shop? I’d ask my clients. Fine. Do so. But put the leash on first and then unhook it when you are ready to work your dog again. Do you want to ask the trainer a question. Same rule applies.
Even without cell phones to check, because there were none then, here’s what I saw. If a client took 11% of his or her attention off the dog, say to glance at me and ask a question, the dog misbehaved 11%. They didn’t run off. They just cheated a little. 11% worth. I don’t have to tell you how astonishing I found this, nor do I have to go through all the numbers. In fact, I had actually seen something like this with my demo dog Oliver. People would ask if they could work him. It was a lot easier and more fun than training their own dog! With kids I worked with, working Ollie at the end of a good lesson became their reward. With adults in class, sometimes it was actually useful to let them get the feel of a trained dog and for me to get to work their untrained dog. How did Oliver react? He would test whomever held the leash. He would heel a tiny little bit forward, say 4%, watching them all the time. If they didn’t tell him, “Heel,” and of course they didn’t, he stopped listening to them 100%.
What’s the point of all this? Of course, don’t work a dog off leash in New York City if you haven’t taken every single step and precaution to make sure he’s ready for it. And even then, don’t do it if you are not prepared to give him your full attention.
Full attention. Something scarce these days. Go out to eat and you may find half the people in the restaurant scanning their phones. Be careful crossing the street. Even drivers who don’t text while driving sometimes text at red lights, rolling forward as they do. Mothers out with their children? Texting. People out with their pets? Not paying attention.
Here’s the thing. When you give one thing your full attention, there’s none left for anything else – unpaid bills, relationships on the brink, work stress, concerns about your health, whatever garbage is floating through your head lots of the time, day and night. Getting fully involved, let’s say in a little walk with your dog, can be good for your health. Beyond that, it’s good for your dog, too, and no doubt, he will notice and he’ll be thankful. I’m 100% sure of this.