What is Engagement?
Engagement has really taken off in the dog training space and for an obvious reason; it’s amazing!
Engagement refers to your dog’s ability to focus on you and do what you are asking them to do with enthusiasm… in short. The thing about engagement is that it isn’t necessarily just your dog’s ability to focus on you through distraction, there are multiple stages to it and varying degrees of commitment that are required for both dog and handler.
Stages of Engagement
- The handler does all the work
Most pet parents and trainers are familiar with this stage and it’s typically used a lot as distraction in a difficult environment. This usually involves a dog participating in a short game that is designed to pull the dog’s attention and focus. In this stage the handler initiates the game and does most of the work. An example of stage one would be a treat toss game where the handler throws a treat in one direction, the dog runs to get it, then the handler throws a treat in the other direction and repeats.
- The dog initiates the game
Stage two is an important aspect of levelling up the engagement your dog offers. In this stage the dog initiates the game by offering some sort of focus to the handler which then immediately starts the game. In this stage, it is important that the dog understands that they activate the handler and are in control of that. They may shift out of focus and in the instance that they do, the game stops until they reengage.
- The dog pushes for the engagement
A lot of pet parents and even trainers often skip this stage or aren’t even aware that it exists. Stage three involves the dog activating the handler with a certain level of enthusiasm. In stage two, the second the dog offers focus, the game starts, however in stage three, the handler is asking for the dog to push them into activation. In this stage, ‘power up’ behaviours are often used, this may be barking at the handler, jumping up, spinning on the spot. Whilst these behaviours may seem like behaviours you wouldn’t want your dog to do to get attention, the dog learns context about when they are appropriate. This stage is what builds a dog’s enthusiasm for the work.
- Give me this, to get that
Stage four typically includes some sort of formal work prior to the engagement for example an obedience position. This is where strength is created in behaviours because the dog pushes hard to get the fun engagement type work. Once the dog reaches this stage, their enthusiasm for work is quite high.
The Challenge with Engagement
Most pet parents are only ever familiar with stage one of engagement which is where the onus is on the handler to captivate the dog’s attention. The challenge with this is that as the environment becomes increasingly more difficult, the handler has to continue working harder to captivate the dog. To get started, this is fine, however it can cause frustration long term if the dog zones out.
Engagement as Distraction
Another component of engagement that can cause other training challenges, is when your engagement game is so good it can be used as a distraction. That’s right, you read correctly. The amazing aspect of engagement is that it can be used in a range of situations to build your dog’s confidence and focus. A lot of pet parents love having the engagement games as an option for distraction for something that typically upsets the dog or causes reactivity.
The problem with distraction only training is that at no point the dog takes in their surroundings. This can cause a tunnel vision response where as soon as the engagement game ends the dog is instantly overwhelmed. At That Dog School we practice shifting the dog out of engagement games to a game of ‘Do Nothing’, where we reinforce the dog for making good choices in their environment. This allows the dog to take in the environment and return to engagement as they need. Our goal with any low confidence dogs or dogs that display reactivity is to have them be okay in the presence of the challenging stimulus. This means that learn to overcome their concerns and don’t have to rely on distractions to navigate the world.
There are a stack of short courses available when it comes to developing engagement games. UK company Absolute Dogs offers an awesome 25 day challenge called Sexier Than A Squirrel which is a great introduction to engagement type games.