Launched in 2012, our Phideaux University training and enrichment program was developed to improve and enhance the lives of our shelter dogs, most of which come to us with little to no formal training.

In addition to preparing them for successful adoption, the innovative program also would help keep our dogs mentally healthy by allowing them opportunities to both think and learn.

However, it quickly became apparent that although most of our dogs were outwardly-“friendly” (wiggly, waggly tails, jumping up with glee) few of them seemed to find us the least bit interesting once taken outside their enclosures.

Pulling furiously, nose to ground, most seemed blissfully unaware of the human at the other end of the leash. In other words, we quickly ceased to be “relevant” once there was something more exciting going on.

Hmmm, sound familiar? Although shelter dogs are more likely to exhibit impulsive, unruly behaviors due to their unstructured backgrounds and lack of training, many dogs that reside in loving homes also appear to tune their owners out – especially when it comes to complying with basic commands in the face of distraction.

Don’t our dogs love us enough? Why, oh why, won’t they just listen?

Quick answer: As I stated in my previous article, dogs don’t operate out of a sense of obligation, gratitude, morality or guilt.

The ability to act on “conscience” is strictly a human trait. Therefore, “should” simply doesn’t enter the equation in a dog’s decision making process. Neither does love.

Love is a feeling, not a reason. Simply put, love is what causes your dog to dance with joy when you arrive home after a long day at work.

Relationship is what keeps your dog from running out the front door and ignoring your desperate pleas to “Come here!”

In other words, the quality of our relationship (how relevant our dog perceives us to be) plays a major role in whether or not he chooses to comply with our wishes – especially in new environments, or any time we are not “the only game in town.”

Therefore, your dog’s responsiveness to you in times of distraction is heavily tied to the relationship between the two of you – the bond you share.

So how do we improve our relationships with our dogs? Well, here’s an idea – do something with your dog!

Make him think! Engage him! Next to outright abuse and neglect, the worse thing we do to beloved pooches is practically bore them to death!

Don’t be shy; have some fun (making sure to take into consideration what he considers fun) For instance, a beagle might enjoy sniffing out some treats you’ve hidden around the house, while a Jack Russell might love the process of learning a new trick.

“Process” is the operative word here. It doesn’t matter so much how polished the end result is when teaching your dog something new; it’s the process of working together that creates a positive association in your dog’s mind.

Instead of just presenting your dog with a bowl of food at mealtime, put at least half of his kibble in your pocket and make him “work” for it.

Most dogs are highly motivated by their food so why not use it to get them thinking and working?

One of the best – and most overlooked – relationship building tools is the daily walk. Use it to make your time together seem more like a shared adventure.

Take a different route. Get off the pavement and enjoy a stroll in the woods instead. Climb over a log together. Negotiate a shallow stream or hill.

Your dog will begin to see you more as an active participant than just a mildly annoying appendage at the opposite end of the leash!

In other words, make yourself a little more fun and engaging. A strong history of positive associations coupled with the repetition of having him practice polite learned behaviors throughout the day is what keeps your dog “tuned in” when and where you need him to.

“My human is fun! My human is entertaining! We DO things together! Why would I run down the street by myself looking for something to do when I can be with my person?”