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What is Engagement, and Why is it Taught Before Obedience Training?

By Jason Wright

January 10, 2024

After a few days of owning their pet, a new dog owner will focus on training their dog. While this step is crucial in ensuring that you raise and train your dog to follow commands and respond with acceptable behaviour, one small component is crucial before you begin training. That step is engagement.

Without engagement, training your dog is like “speaking to a wall.” It is a difficult process that often ends with the dog owner being frustrated, tired, or giving up and with the dog not progressing at all in their training. This is why we encourage dog owners to spend the necessary time to bond and build engagement with their pets.

With engagement, training sessions become more fluid as you can ensure your pet listens to and follows your commands. So, whether you’ve just brought home a puppy or are working with an older pet - this is the one tactic recommended to conquer before you move on to basic training.

What Is “Engagement”?

If you’re new to training, you may be questioning what engagement is. Engagement is more than a dog simply looking in your direction. It's the magnetic connection or bond that makes your dog willingly listen and tune into your commands or words. 

When your dog is engaged, they're not just there physically—they're mentally present, eagerly awaiting the next cue. Think of it as the groundwork for effective communication

Why Engagement Matters: The First Step in Training

If you’ve ever tried speaking to a barely engaged human, you know that the conversation or getting your point across becomes a struggle. This is because they are “disengaged.” 

Similarly, without engagement with your pet, navigating training becomes a frustrating uphill battle that can result in zero progress. So, before you begin laying out any commands, it’s important that you take the time to build that connection with your pet, ensuring that they are engaged.

Here’s why engagement ultimately matters:

  • Focus and Control: An engaged dog is a focused dog. It's the key to gaining control over your pup in various situations, from walks in a crowded park to navigating busy downtown streets. Without engagement, chaos reigns.
  • Building Trust: Engagement fosters a deeper bond. When your dog willingly engages with you, it shows trust and respect. This trust becomes the bedrock for a strong owner-dog relationship and can make the training sessions easier.
  • Learning Readiness: Picture engagement as turning on the learning switch in your dog's brain. Without it, teaching new commands or tricks becomes a daunting task. Engaged dogs are receptive and eager to learn, so it’s important to complete this step before training.

The Disadvantages Of Not Working on Engagement With Your Dog

It is possible to train and work with your pet without building engagement; however, proceeding in this direction leads to challenging training sessions. Not only is it hard to keep your dog’s focus and attention, but you, the dog owner, can find yourself frustrated and unwilling to dedicate the time and effort it takes to train a pet.

Before you rush off to training, it’s important to understand what you might encounter without a solid foundation of engagement:

  • Leash Struggles: An unengaged dog can turn a peaceful walk into a tug-of-war match. Leash manners fly out the window, frustrating both you and your dog.
  • Selective Hearing: Without engagement, your dog becomes a master of selective hearing. It's a recipe for miscommunication and unresponsiveness, leaving you and your pet frustrated.
  • Social Quirks: An unengaged dog may even struggle to navigate social situations. This can pose a significant issue on busy city streets, near crowded parks, or suburban areas, thanks to the distractions of squirrels, kids, and car horns. 

How To Build Proper Engagement With Your Dog

Engagement will look different from dog to dog and pet owner to pet owner. This is why it is recommended that you work to understand your dog’s personal energy and body language, making this tactic easier to understand and work through.

To build engagement with your dog, a few different techniques can be used. These techniques can also be relied on to strengthen the engagement between you and your dog as they get older and as you work through more complex commands and training sessions: 

  • Playful Interactions: Your dog is not just there to be trained. They also have pent-up energy that they need to work through every day. Set aside playtime with your pet, building a relationship with them. It is recommended that playtime is done in a specific area of the house or, even better, outside so that your dog knows when playtime starts and ends. This will help to keep boundaries intact.
  • Eye Contact Games: Teach your dog that eye contact equals rewards. Practice short sessions where your dog looks into your eyes, gradually extending the duration. 
  • High-Value Treats: If you find a treat that gets your dog’s attention, it’s best to use it when working with them to build engagement. These treats can be used when working with your pet to get their attention, such as eye-contact games, or during training sessions to keep them engaged and attentive.
  • Structured Walks: Transform some of your walks into engagement sessions. Use turns, stops, and changes in pace to keep your dog tuned in to your movements.
  • Patience: Training your pet and building engagement with them cannot be accomplished in a day. These are tactics and skills that take time, patience and consistency. Even when your dog shows that they are engaged or performs proper commands, it’s important to remember that training is ongoing. 

Building Engagement: The iTK9 Way

As with anything else in life, it becomes easier when you’re in tune and in flow with the work you're doing. Building engagement with your pet is the “flow.” This crucial step helps to ensure that you have your dog’s attention, which not only allows your training sessions to proceed easier but also helps to keep your dog safe from any unforeseeable accidents that can occur.

If you're struggling to build engagement with your pet or unsure where to start, our trained professionals can help. They fully commit to working with them safely and effectively through behaviour, obedience training, and continued learning.

We do the hard work for you to attain a happy home and a healthy relationship with your pet.

Included in all of our programs are the following;

  1. In-Person Learning: Midway progress training video, two go-home lessons.
  2. Online Learning: Owner education course, instructional training videos, iTK9 member community, e-books & additional training resources.
  3. Owner Support: Photo updates of your dog training with our team and access to our team for questions & support.

Contact us today for more information on our programs, including Board & Train.

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