A Focused Dog Is Ready to Learn

Erick Redwood photo
Panda, Cajun and Skeeter, from left, wait for permission.
Erick Redwood, for the Shuttle

(Second of three parts.)

In my last article, I proffered the value of free run and exercise and teaching recall to your canine companion. This combination of exercise and learning will function for your dog as its own implicit reward; in fact, the prime reinforcement for recall is having free-run access to the pee-mails of other canines and sundry other animals. Being able to see who’s been there works as the “dessert” of the free-run exercise.

So, assuming we have now gotten to a place where you can keep your dog within the 50 feet of your training lead, and you are able to release the lead confidently, you can start to work with permissions and boundaries. If you’ve been reasonably successful at establishing a reliable level of recall through the free run, your dog’s trust level will enable him/her to focus more directly on you.

While the free-run component is a prerequisite for your dog to trust his human, the next two components, Boundaries and Permissions and Nurturing and Play, need to be balanced. (The latter will be detailed in the third article in this series).


Focus is the prerequisite for setting boundaries and getting your dog to respect permissions. When your dog is focused on your wishes and you say “no,” they know.

Permissions allow your dog to distinguish between what he knows he is allowed to do and what he needs permission to do. A good example is feeding from the table; in response to those who would say that this encourages “begging,” I’d argue that it can create more trust and focus when your dog learns that he needs permission, i.e., to be invited. “Begging” can be redirected to a sit and stay away from the table and then be rewarded.

Another illustration: My dogs have free access to my sofa and bed; however, they know that permissions in my house do not extend to other people’s homes!

Giving permission to your dog entails first ascertaining that he is receptive (focus) to learning what you want to teach him. The foundation is the basic sit command. Sitting on command is central to establishing your alpha role as teacher and parent, and canine cooperation is critical. You know your dog is tuned in to your words/commands when he can look you back in the eye. You can tell a dog to sit repeatedly but the repetition is only a voice in the wind if he is choosing to ignore you.

Just as the free-run/off-leash exercise was coupled with the teaching of recall, so the sit command is most successfully taught when coupled with feedings. Respectful “sit and wait” commands (separate, not simultaneous) before eating creates an appreciative bond and reiterates your alpha role for establishing boundaries and for correction where necessary. If he does not sit when you put the food down and give him the verbal (or hand) signal, wait until he does. Don’t continuously repeat the command. A sit command has been successful when it is immediately responded to on first request.

Look him in the eye (even if you need to rest his head on your hand to get him to return your gaze) before giving him the “sit” part of the command.

Stand in front of the food until he cooperates. Touch his rump if he needs encouragement.

Once you’ve “helped him” sit, then praise him (happy voice) and give him permission to eat.

Like people, all dogs have their own unique personality (dog-ality?), and for some, a bit more work will be required; also, different breeds have different propensities. Since this is a “primer,” it is only a template for your relationship with your dog. Your dog’s trust in and coordination with you, his human, is the key to his acquiring focus.


Dogs intuit your feelings and respond accordingly. Canines hear the tone of your voice and the emotions that are conveyed through those tones. Three distinct essential voices need to be appropriately differentiated when addressing your dog:

  • The COMMAND voice is a direct, non-threatening, positive direction, such as “sit” or “wait.”
  • The CORRECTIVE voice is to be used only when a command or boundary has been ignored. However, corrective tones can often be mistakenly used interchangeably with the COMMAND voice. Dogs do hear the tonal difference; words are secondary, and variably understood.
  • The PLAY/NURTURE voice is used for play and reward, not instruction or command. It should not be used to trick your dog into cooperating.

In the third installment, I will elaborate on the conscious use of voice tones and give more detail on the PLAY/NURTURE component, and how it balances the instructional program.

Erick Redwood, M.Ed., does relationship counseling via cognitive behavioral therapy. He has adapted his own methodology to facilitate understanding between canines and their humans. Email him at erick.redwood@gmail.com.