On Attention, Engagement, and Connection

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately thinking about what “attention” and “connection” mean when we’re discussing training and living with dogs. 

I hear from private clients and students in group classes that they want their dogs to “pay attention” to them, but I think it’s important that we, as thoughtful and well-intentioned pet parents, take the time to examine what it is that we truly want, ask, expect of our dogs.

So, what gets packed into the picnic basket of “attention”?

Looking at us?
Responding to cues?
Moving with (not against) leash pressure? 
Relegating the rest of the world to a backseat to focus on us?

I think for many people it means that when we ask the dog to pay attention, that they should switch ON like an electronic device and remain attentive to us until we’re done giving commands.

All of these versions of “attention” are active on the part of the dog, and passive on the part of the human. We place ourselves in the position of being at the receiving end, with no responsibility to act.  The term “pay” as in to pay attention to is plainly one-sided and indicative of a inherent separation in the relationship: one pays attention, the other is the recipient of attention.

Additionally, asking for or requiring our dogs to “pay attention” makes no room for the dog – there is only room for the human’s priorities, and while in some emergency situations that’s a very relevant place to come from, the vast majority of the time it is in everyone’s best interest to recognize the validity of both partys’ experiences and perspectives.

I truly don’t feel like I’m just being pedantic here: words have power, sometimes so subtle that the indirect implications of the words we use are absorbed and soak into our subconscious. I do not ever want to feel that my dogs are obligated to pay attention to me because I exist, walk on two legs, feed them, and take them to the vet. I DO want to feel that my dogs are willing (and happy!) to connect with me because I give them the respect of being engaged with them.

Engagement as the direction of connection

I think about engagement with dogs as reaching for or being actively open to connection. I can engage with my dog Kit by attuning myself to his individual vocabulary of body language so I can interpret his mental and emotional state based on the signals and behaviors he displays.  When I see where he is at that moment, I can tune my communication with him to be best received and understood.  By doing this, by giving him acknowledgement of his existence as a thinking, feeling, expressive being, I am inviting Kit to engage with me. Through my actions I let him know (whether he’s cognitively aware of it or not) that I hear him when he speaks, I see how he feels that day, I recognize how is focus and interest may be split at that moment, and I make room for all of that in how I interact with him.

(Does this sound like coddling?  You could look at it that way if you think your dog is able to see the world through your eyes and make decisions large and small with your desires and priorities in mind. Guess what?  Your dog can’t do that, but you can, and that’s why it’s on us to go the extra mile for our pups.)

So, what is the dog’s responsibility here? What does it look like to have a dog who is engaged (again, that’s a dog who will reach for or being actively open to connection) with his person? How do you get that?

I think of an engaged dog as one who keeps his person in his sphere of awareness, even if the person isn’t his main focus at that time. On a walk this could look like a dog who is able to sniff and explore but primarily stays within the parameters of the leash voluntarily, responds to his name with a glance and a tail wag when called, and checks in with his person with reasonable frequency without being cued to do so. That pretty much describes what most people want from a walk with their dog.

Some people are lucky and have dogs who are like this naturally from day one, even if the person on the other end of the leash is not actively engaging with the dog (have you seen these pairs? The dog who keeps looking to his human for some semblance of interaction while the human twiddles on his or her phone?). For the rest of us, especially those of us with adolescent or reactive dogs, it takes a lot of work to build engagement.

Work, and patience.

If you have a dog who isn’t innately tuned in with you, whether at home, on a walk, at the park, wherever, that means it’s your responsibility to cultivate that engagement by giving your dog a good reason* to engage. And that’s what well executed positive reinforcement training does: it gives dogs a really good reason to choose to do the stuff we would prefer they do.

I’m not going into the nuts and bolts of creating engagement and connection here, that would be a much longer post, or possibly a separate one) and I also don’t want to dictate what connection with your dog should look like for you. The way I engage and connect with Kit is different from how I engage and connect with Stormy or Shine: each dog has different skills, vocabularies, priorities, interests, and motivations.

Think of this as a starting point for your own journey with your dog, where you, maybe for the first time, make space for your dog’s experience of the world and allow that to gently shift how you interact with him; you can turn interactions into dialogues and walks into conversations where you each have a voice.

When Kit and I are connected, when we are each listening to the other, we are dancing with one another (or sometimes acting out a comedy routine; I am always the straight man!), we are moving together, with as much synergy as a dog and a human can. That doesn’t mean our dances, our training sessions or walks are always easy, but they are always performed as a partnership between to beings who are open to each other and willing to listen.

And that feels so good.

*To be clear, that’s a good reason from the dog’s point of view, not yours.

What’s in a name?

Have you been wondering about the significance of the name “Birch Bark”? Has it been keeping you up nights?
We certainly hope not, but we’re still happy to explain.

One of the primary characteristics of birch trees is their flexibility: their ability to bend without breaking. If these tall and slender trees were rigid, any force that pulled at them– strong winds, the weight of ice and snow clinging to branches in winter, climbing children (or, let’s be honest here: adventurous adults, too) — would cause their trunks to crack. With their tendency towards bending, however, the tree does not attempt to deny the forces that press against it: they do not stand erect and unchanged by events. It is the tree’s capacity to accept and move with its stressors, rather than unyieldingly resisting its environment that allow it to survive and thrive.

Often, when a dog is exhibiting a concerning, frustrating, or upsetting behavior, our instinct as owners is to resist it without accepting it for what it really is, which, from a purely superficial standpoint makes sense: it’s a problem and we want it gone.
The issue with that point of view is we are ignoring a big part of the equation: the dog. Your dog’s behavior, no matter how annoying, or even alarming, is serving a purpose for your dog. In order to address any behavior or training problem holistically, we have to take into account the lens that the dog sees the world through. Once we accept the dog’s experience as valid and relevant can we take steps to change it from a foundation of compassion and empathy.

It’s not just the humans who can benefit from building mental and emotional flexibility when faced with an upset, however. Whether it’s put in these exact words or not, most behavior modification serves the purpose of teaching a dog to resiliently accept the stressors of their environment, to move with the changes in their world without breaking apart over them. Whether your dog becomes so frantic in play that she can not seem to control her bite or she falls to pieces when she encounters another dog; whether he panics when you try to leave the house or cowers and growls when a visitor enters, these reactions are valid emotional responses based on where your dog is standing at that exact moment, but can, and for the benefit of both of you, should be changed.

With science-based training, formal behavior modification protocols, and the crucial mixture of patience, empathy, dedication, and time, we can help our dogs see the things that make them scared, anxious, hostile, or frantic as No Big Deal, or at least not worth getting upset over.

So, the name “Birch Bark”? It is because I want to, as a dog parent, trainer, and behaviorist be flexible and fair to the creatures I live with, work with, and love. I want to teach them to bend with the wind of the world: to become strong and resilient creatures that can adapt and adjust to the stressors they face.

And, ya know, cuz dogs bark.