Yet so many people don’t have it, although they persist in trying to advance in training their dog’s other obedience skills without solidifying focus first. Many newer trainers seem to almost take it for granted, wondering why their dogs scour the floor, run off to visit other dogs, instead of coming, heeling, etc. when asked. “He gets so distracted ___________ (outside, around other dogs/kids/smells/the floor at PCOTC – you fill in the blank),” or, “She does the exercises perfectly in class, but when we get to a trial, she checks out,” are common laments.
Focus is a learned skill that must be trained and reinforced just like any other -- strategically, systematically and in lots of different environments. And once you get it, you still have to work it intermittently or it will deteriorate. Again, just like recalls or finishes or go-outs or any other behavior you want to keep fresh.
Here are some basics to keep in mind:
· Dogs usually pay attention to what is interesting to them. It’s our job to make that US! Train and build value for attention as a separate skill.
· When you are asking your dog for his attention, be sure you are fully giving him yours. No chatting with friends, reloading treats, watching an instructor demo as your dog patiently stares at you.
· To that point, make it clear to the dog when he is on and off duty. Use a clear release signal (“free”, “all done”, etc.), change your body posture, put your dog in “park” (down/settle/crate).
· Maximize value for attention by letting your dog CHOOSE to attend to you and marking and rewarding him for it in a meaningful way (to him). In the beginning, limit his opportunity to make incorrect choices or gain reinforcement from elsewhere. Keep him on a short leash, work in a small area, move away from other dogs, etc.
· Don’t talk, pay attention to or nag your dog when he’s doing something you don’t want. Unless you correct the dog in a meaningful way, that nagging just teaches your dog to tune you out! Set things up so he’ll be able to choose a correct response, and then praise and reward.
· Think of building your dog’s “attention muscle” like building a healthy bank account. Steady deposits and minimal withdrawals yield the best results. Set up for success, reward generously, add distractions thoughtfully. Practice makes permanent; once your dog learns that paying attention has value, his attention muscle will rapidly gain strength. Settle for mediocre focus and all of your training will suffer.
If you are mindful of your dog’s focus skills – and your own – you will be able to plan, train, reward, correct and build a relationship where the two of you are 100% engaged with one another, during training and in the ring. Happy training!