Training Fundamentals: Engagement

In the first article in this series I introduced three fundamental elements of dog training: communication; engagement; and motivation. The second article took a closer look at communication. This time we’ll take a closer look at engagement.

There needs to be a strong working relationship between an effective handler and search dog team. To achieve that, the dog must be engaged with the handler. There must be active investment and sustained attention to establish new behaviours and to perform work tasks in training and on actual deployments. And while we tend to focus on the need for engagement in the dog, it is equally important in the handler. It is a team after all.

But lets get back to the dog. The dog needs to be engaged to learn new behaviours. At the beginning it is more important to establish and maintain engagement than to try and teach behaviours. If you are having a hard time teaching a new behaviour, take a step back and consider if the dog is actively engaged. Re-establish that connection and then get back to the training.

You want the dog to be engaged with you during an entire training session – the dog shouldn’t check out between repetitions. One way to do that is to keep training sessions short. Multiple short sessions are much more effective than one long (and eventually boring) session. Marker training and other positive training methods encourage engagement. While you can put engagement on cue with a verbal cue like “Ready”, it is more than a simple “Focus” command. It is a willingness to learn, to perform, to actively engage.

An engaged dog feels empowered within their training. An engaged dog elicits behaviour from the handler. The dog gets amped up when you arrive at the training site. He bumps your pocket that holds the toy. He barks and spins – working hard to engage you in the game.

SAR Dog Keji loves to work. His world narrows down to him, me, the reward, and what he has to do to get that reward. As a colleague once said, Keji comes out of the vehicle on a mission, even if he doesn’t always know what the mission is. That’s my job – to let him know today’s game. Once he knows the game, he wants it to start right NOW. He’s oblivious to the rest of the world. Other dogs, people, and things are irrelevant if they are not part of the game. He is engaged. Ready to learn or perform.

You’ll want to establish engagement and teach new behaviours in a safe and secure environment with limited distractions. But you’ll also want to test the reliability of the dog’s engagement and new behaviours in more distracting and challenging environments and contexts. Expose the dog to a variety of environments, situations, and people. And not just for socialization, but for engagement with you in those settings.

The power of engagement is impressive. But, to paraphrase Spiderman and others, “with great power comes great responsibility.” Use it for good, and be safe out there.

More on motivation in the next article in this series.