Ian’s dogs—Maggie, Molly and Jake—display various levels of attentiveness while they’re together on the trail. Maggie looks back every few seconds, as though she’s afraid he’ll disappear. Molly’s mainly interested in Ian when she’s thirsty. Jake checks in from time to time, typically when he’s startled by an unusual sound or comes to a bend in the trail. When Ian calls them, they all run joyfully to him. In response to their names, each pauses and looks toward him, suspending activity while waiting for more information. Each has also been trained to look at him in response to the cue “watch.” Though these dogs have different levels of natural attentiveness, they are uniformly skilled at responding to cues for attention.
Ian can hike with his dogs off-leash, confident that they will pay attention to him if he asks them to, even though at least one and sometimes two of them are less interested in him than in the world around them. Only Maggie consistently gives him her attention spontaneously, but they all attend to him on cue. Spontaneous attention and attention that’s given on cue are both valuable.
Inborn or Learned
Many factors influence the level of a dog’s attentiveness. Some naturally attentive dogs are clingy and some are social butterflies who are just drawn to people. Still others are a bit possessive, treating their guardians as though they are the best bones in the world and need constant attention to maintain their safety. While these traits can be modified, they cannot be created out of thin air or fundamentally changed. Dogs either have this behavioral tendency or they don’t.
Few dogs are as naturally attentive as most of us wish; if yours isn’t, don’t feel bad, don’t feel guilty and for goodness sake, don’t wonder what you did wrong! Your dog, like most dogs, just isn’t inclined that way. For some guardians, that’s a good thing. Plenty of people prefer dogs with their own interests who can amuse themselves and aren’t staring at them expectantly, riveted by their every action.
The strength of your relationship has an impact on your dog’s attentiveness. If you have consistently been a source of what makes your dog happy, attention is a likely side effect. A lot of love between the two of you and a strong history of fun together make paying attention to you worthwhile for your dog.
While a strong relationship can help with attention issues, I’m not suggesting that a good relationship will guarantee a high level of attentiveness: it won’t. It’s just one piece of the puzzle, and if your dog is not highly attentive in all situations, it certainly doesn’t mean that the relationship is flawed or in any way lacking. It just means that for whatever reason, your dog is focusing on other aspects of the environment.
Many people find that their dogs are so engrossed in the environment and all its wonderful smells that getting them to pay attention outdoors feels like swimming upstream. Though such “nose to the ground” dogs are indeed among the most challenging when it comes to working on attentiveness, many of them are actually attending to their people without obvious signs of doing so. It’s common for those with dogs who are particularly responsive to the environment to note that their dogs always know where they are when they’re out and about. However, the dogs’ top priority in that context isn’t interacting with people, it’s interacting with the environment. They tend to show their affiliation in other ways at other times, and that’s where the strength of the relationship is more obvious to the casual observer.
Many factors affect your relationship, including your respective personalities and your interactions over time. If your dog associates you with treats, enjoyable training, massages, outings, toys and games, you’re more likely to have his attention. In the best of relationships, there’s also an intangible quality: some individuals hit it off in an indefinable, magical way. Strong bonds of love are often made of those special and inexplicable connections.