You’ll never be more interesting than dirt 

 August 23, 2021

By  Daisy Peel

  • “I just want my puppy to pay attention to me”
  • “I just want my puppy to want to be with me”
  • “My instructor says I need to be more interesting”
  • “You just need to be more interesting than dirt”

That last one is a particularly misleading, and somewhat offensive thing to say to a student who is trying to get their puppy or dog to pay attention to them. Yes, in the short term, if you jump up and down, and hoot and holler, you may distract your dog from whatever amazing smell they are checking out. But, you’re pretty unlikely to ever be more interesting than dirt, and to be told that that’s all you have to do, just be more interesting than dirtto solve your engagement issues with your dog, doesn’t even come CLOSE to helping you understand what you DO need to do. 

If ANY of the four statements at the top of this article are statements you’ve made, or heard, I want you to try this thought experiment with me. Look at your dog. Now, I want you to imagine that your dog is not a dog, but a chicken.

Imagine your dog is not a dog, but a chicken.

Yes, that’s right. A chicken. Now, imagine you are at a workshop, in a room with several other people. You’re all standing in front of rectangular tables with tablecloths on them, arranged sort of like a science lab. Two people per table. One person, you, is the person doing an experiment, and the other person is observing, taking notes, helping as directed, and waiting their turn to do the experiment. And the experiment is…training a chicken. This is ‘chicken camp’, a multiple day workshop where you will learn the basics of training animals. These basics apply to chickens, horses, cats, your partner, and yes, your dog. Now, let’s think on those statements at the top of the article:

  • “I just want my chicken to pay attention to me”
  • “I just want my chicken to want to be with me”
  • “My instructor says I need to be more interesting”
  • “You just need to be more interesting than dirt”

Those statements are just as meaningless in the context of training a chicken as they are to training a puppy or dog. The last two statements are particularly ridiculous, and were never something that was uttered at any of the five chicken camps I attended over the course of several years. Those chicken camp attendees who lamented that they “just wanted their chicken to pay attention to them” didn’t make much progress actually TRAINING their chickens.

A chicken is not going to just magically turn and ‘pay attention’ to you, and if you are waiting for chicken to do so, you’re gonna be waiting a looooong time. Chickens, puppies…it’s the same. So, what DO you need to do if you ‘just want your chicken puppy to pay attention to you’?

For the remainder of this article, I’m going to remind you to think of your puppy as a chicken. Trust me, this will be a game changer for you, and your chicken puppy.

Give up on being more interesting than dirt.

Simply jumping up and down, hooting and hollering, running around like a crazy person…these things may get your chicken’s puppy’s attention in the short term, but they do not make you more interesting than dirt, and they do not get at the core of your problem of wanting to figure out how to get your chicken puppy to ‘engage’ with you. Stop wasting your time with this line of thinking, and the next time an instructor says that to you, ask them instead to remind you of the points in this article.

While my GOAL may be to develop a chicken puppy that pays attention to me, that is NEVER something that I work on directly. The way that I teach all of my chickens dogs to pay attention to me is by teaching them that they can act on their environment when I’m around, and on me directly, in particular ways that make rewarding things happen. NEVER am I going to simply WAIT for a chicken puppy or dog to ‘pay attention to me’ to offer a reward. That’s nebulous – what IS ‘paying attention’ anyway? I don’t need my chickens dogs to stare lovingly at me. I want to move through life with chickens dogs that are engaged with me. I want chickens dogs that know they can push my buttons, that I am a slot machine that pays. No chicken puppy comes wired that way, and so that is the FIRST thing I teach any chicken puppy. When you act on the environment, rewards will rain down upon you, and I am the source of those rewards.


When you act on the environment, rewards will rain down upon you, and I am the source of those rewards.


This notion is the basis of reinforcement based training. It’s the basis of training that allows your chicken puppy to have some agency, or choice, in what they will or will not do. Shaping is in general how I approach training, although I don’t tend to “free shape”, because I do not have unlimited time, and my goal is typically to train a clean behavior. I want my chicken puppy to have choices, but I also want to LIMIT those choices, especially in the beginning stages of training, so that my chicken puppy is highly likely to make a choice that I can quickly reward.

Then, repeat that simple concept 10,000 times, and my chicken puppy learns that by acting on its environment or ME directly, in sometimes seemingly random ways, earns reward from me. By the time this has happened even a few hundred times, sometimes even just a few dozen times, my chicken puppy always has one eye on me as it interacts with its environment, because any interaction with its environment may in fact earn something rewarding from ME.

And voila – my chicken puppy is ‘paying attention to me’.

This is all dead simple. Simple, but not necessarily easy. So, you’re looking at your chicken puppy, and wondering just HOW to do this, right? Here are some tips to remember for success in teaching your chicken puppy to learn to act on its environment, to act on YOU, for reinforcement. These tips are the things I do right off the bat with any chicken puppy that comes to me, BUT, you can also use these tips to help your older dog learn to ‘push your buttons’.

1) Control the environment, not your chicken puppy.

The first thing you have to come to terms with is that you cannot directly control your chicken puppy. What you CAN control is the environment in which your chicken puppy acts. If you are trying to accomplish initial training with an animal in an environment in which you do not have any control, you are going to have a rough time. Set the stage for success early on and start in an environment that you have a high degree of control over. A small, relatively boring room that your chicken puppy is familiar with is a good idea. The bathroom. A spare bedroom. The important thing here is that you eliminate novelty. Your chicken puppy should be familiar with this space. It should have thoroughly investigated this space prior to you doing any training in that space. The space should be so boring to your chicken puppy that it just about settles down immediately for a nap when entering. Ok, that’s maybe an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

2) Introduce novelty and be prepared to reward

You’re going to want to have some of step 2 finished before step 1. Whatever you do to introduce novelty to the environment, you want to have it ready to go before you enter that environment with your chicken puppy. Something as simple as a cardboard box can be novel if introduced suddenly to a boring environment. So, I’ll use that as an example. Have your cardboard box ready. Have it on a countertop or table top, along with some treats. And oh, you want to make sure that your chicken puppy is HUNGRY – that your food reward is actually something they want. Again, you can control this. SKIP A MEAL prior to the training, or do this during a regular mealtime, to raise up the value of the food reward.

You’re going to introduce novelty by dropping the box on the floor from a small height, maybe a foot or so. Once you and your chicken puppy are in the room together, it’s game on. DO NOT WAIT FOR YOUR CHICKEN PUPPY TO ‘PAY ATTENTION’ TO YOU. I cannot stress enough that you must get over that kind of thinking. Put some kibble in one hand, just 3-4, and the box in your other hand, and whether your chicken puppy is looking at you or not, drop the box.

REWARD ANY RESPONSE TO THE BOX HITTING THE FLOOR

When the box hits the floor, your chicken puppy will likely react. They might look at the box, they might startle, they might stop sniffing, they might freeze. ANY reaction at all…REWARD. Do not waste time requiring that your chicken puppy take the reward from your hand. Simply toss your reward so that it lands right in front of your chicken’s puppy’s nose. You don’t need to click. You don’t need to say a word if you don’t want to. Your ONLY goal is to make cookies that your chicken puppy is hungry for magically appear when they react IN ANY WAY to the box hitting the floor.

Now, do it again. Your chicken puppy may react differently. Doesn’t matter. Reward again. Remember, you’re not working on ‘take food from the hand’ – you’re only working on ‘interacting with stuff in your environment makes food magically appear’. If your chicken puppy doesn’t react at ALL, try something else. Drop a spoon. Crumple some paper and toss it on the ground. Novelty is defined by your chicken puppy, so keep doing novel things (novel, not frightening) and keep rewarding your chicken puppy for any response to those things.

Side note: I’m getting tired of typing chicken puppy

Why have I been doing that? Because most of us get so emotionally wrapped up in getting our puppies or dogs to ‘love us’ and/or ‘pay attention to us’ that we totally forget the MECHANICS of how to develop a dog that pays attention to us. Thinking of your dog as a chicken (an animal that most of us don’t get quite as emotionally overwrought about) can help you take a step back from all the feelings and concentrate on good mechanics. And yes, I know there’s going to be at least one person who says “but I love my chickens”. The point is, love and good training are NOT the same things. Love will not make your puppy pay attention to you. Love WILL make you more likely to persist in your training even when you’re tired or just not feeling like your best self. But it is not a substitute for good training. Ok. Moving on.

3) Reward responses that successively approximate a final response/behavior – placement of reinforcement counts!

So, your puppy has responded in some way to you dropping a cardboard box on the floor a couple of times. Maybe now you’d like your puppy to approach the box, so you move it on the floor, or do something to the box, and when your puppy notices, you make a reward appear, such that further investigation of the box is warranted by your puppy. TRANSLATED: put yer food in the box. Again, do not make the mistake of thinking you need to hand deliver the food to your puppy’s face. Your puppy is busy thinking about the box. And, this is not a training session of ‘take food from the hand’ – this is a training session of ‘responses to things in the environment make reward appear’. Your puppy knows full well you are the source of the food. He can smell it. He may not be staring at you adoringly, and HE DOESN’T NEED TO. The goal is to make reward appear for your puppy acting on his environment.

Maybe after a few times of you scratching the box and dropping a kibble in the box when your puppy looks toward it gets your puppy to do something ELSE with the box. Maybe he paws at it. Maybe he puts a paw in it. Maybe he bites the box. If your puppy or dog is new to or weak on the concept of acting on his environment or you to get a reward, don’t be picky with HOW he must interact in order to get the reward. Don’t wait for your puppy to act with purpose, giving you the side eye as if to say “hey ma did you see that? Reward me!” – that comes later. MUCH later.

It’s possible you will have to control the environment pretty rigidly for quite a while, if your dog has learned over time that you will NOT reward it for engaging with the environment in which it operates. You can’t do this forever, obviously, but you also can’t expect your puppy or dog to ‘get it’ after just a handful of training sessions. The shared experience of being rewarded for acting on the environment (or you) happens over TIME, and that time can’t be sped up, slowed down, or avoided.


Stop begging for attention. Stop demanding attention. Start being the most rewarding thing for your dog to be around.


Direct appeals for attention will never work. They just won’t. Demands for attention are stifling and stressful for your puppy, and frustrating for you. Your energy and time are not being spent as cleverly as they could be. You can’t simply get your puppy to love you, or pay attention to you; it just doesn’t work that way. You also can’t keep your puppy in a sterile environment all its life just so you are the most interesting thing around. Your puppy NEEDS to sniff dirt. Your puppy NEEDS to check out the world around it. Your puppy NEEDS to have experiences that don’t always involve YOU. Let your ego go here.

Your puppy also needs safe environments in which to HAVE those experiences, and that is where you come in. YOU are in charge of making sure an environment is safe for your puppy (not sterile, safe!) before placing your puppy in that environment. Make sure that your puppy, whose recall is not yet developed or solid (or, cough cough, your adult dog) can’t wander off in the course of his investigations. Make sure he can’t eat anything he shouldn’t. And if he DOES wander over to sniff some dirt, instead of getting all balled up that you are less interesting than the dirt, maybe head over to that dirt, run some of it through your fingers, let your puppy know that hey, this dirt really IS pretty interesting, and drop a few cookies his way while you’re at it.

Then wander off to another dirt pile and do the same thing.

Dirt is amazing for your dog. You can be amazing too, though! No need to compete with the dirt anymore!

Daisy Peel


Daisy has been on the forefront of the trend of online agility education, and her Online Classroom is one of the leading sources for those seeking to improve the quality of their participation in the sport from afar. Her instruction, whether online or in person, is widely sought after as some of the best instruction available for those at any level, with any type of dog.

Daisy Peel

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Marsha

This was wonderful! I wish I had seen this years ago. I have been in tears because a trainer told me I wasn’t good or exciting enough. And that I had to keep them away from everything else they enjoyed. Absolutely love watching the chickens. Thank you so much for this article.

Paula

Marsha, I experienced the same thing. Be more fun! Be more interesting! ..both outside my comfort zone. Nice to hear this perspective, for sure.

Giuliana Lund

I have noticed people often want to pull their dogs away from the things they find most rewarding – dirt, scents, and so on. They think denial is the solution. I love your strategy of leaning in to the environment and playing in the dirt with our dogs. 😁

Leslie

I enjoy training horses, mules, dogs and a Peacock.. (last is pretty hard) What I have found, to open dialogue, is to find what the critter already does and turn it into a training moment, they love approval for what they already do, and the then try to figure out what else they can do and suddenly you have a critter that is excited to learn and from that moment on it is pure magic! Loved you article!

Tracy

Thanks Daisy, Fun to watch the chicken training. I had heard of it but had not actually seen a chicken do agility obstacles. Great article as well. I appreciate everything you said even the tired of crossing out chicken part to replace with puppy. It was necessary though:) That topic has been one I have struggled with for years. I don’t tend to treat enough. I am always loosing my dog(s) attention to a trainer or friend with more or better treats. I have a solid relationship with my dogs though thankfully. I am always learning. I appreciate your information… Read more »

Patty

I think that training tricks to puppies taught me this. Anna Hinze teaches her dogs “action” so they will interact with anything to earn treats.

Kay

So totally what I needed to hear!

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