Posted Date: November 19, 2015
Building focus in your dog can improve your relationship and your agility performance.
by Lisa Lyle Waggoner, CPDT-KA
One of the nicest compliments
I receive when out and about with my girl, Willow, a three-and-a-half year old
Australian Shepherd, is, "Look at the way she watches you!" That comment is
usually followed by something like, "My dog could never do that. He just wont
listen to me!" Then the conversation often flows to the person's desire to have
their dog stop jumping or to come when called or any number of other behaviors
they want their dog to learn.
I assure them that gaining
their dogs focus IS possible. I had it with my former Aussie, Gibson, and I
now have it with Willow. And Brad (my husband, business partner and also a
professional dog trainer) has it with his dog, Cody. When others watch us with
our dogs, they want what we have. You can have it too.
What comes to mind when I ask
you to think of the word focus as it relates to you and your dog? Thats a
question I recently posted on the Cold Nose College Facebook page. Here are a
few of the responses I received:
Dog and handler, as individuals, become one team with one objective
Attention and pure, unadulterated love and devotion
The ability to pick me out of the many draws of their attention when asked
And many comments such as: Wishful thinking!
We each may define focus differently, but two essential key ingredients
are teamwork and trust. Anytime I'm with my three-year old Australian Shepherd Willow
we're a team, working together to achieve an end result or a goal. This may be
a successful on-leash walk down a city sidewalk, a fun off-leash hike in the
woods, or a win in a canine sport. No matter the objective, trust is a key
component in our relationship. Willow trusts me to make good decisions for her.
My commitment to her is that I will do my best to always put her into situations
that she is mentally, physically and emotionally ready to handle. Because she
trusts me, she's always willing to try whatever I ask of her. It takes focus to
achieve goals, no matter what those goals may be.
Its focus, or the lack thereof,
that prompted us to develop a two-day workshop called Fabulous Focus: Focus & Attention Skills for Both Ends of the Leash
to teach dogs and handlers how to focus on one another.
We often hear clients say they
want their dog pay attention to them, yet it's difficult for them to pay
attention to their dog. Focus is a two-way street. I'm sure you've seen a
person walking with their dog yet barely noticing the dog at the other end of
the leash. The person's focus is everywhere but on the dog. The handler must learn
to focus on the dog. In our Fabulous Focus workshops, I tell
participants that getting your dog's attention indoors in your own home is like
a high school diploma - pretty easy to get - but getting your dogs attention
while off-leash and outdoors is like a Ph.D. Admittedly, that's an
exaggeration, but it gets the point across: Focus doesn't miraculously happen.
Before discussing how to begin
teaching a dog to focus, here are a few common training mistakes:
Not training. Just as a teacher in school needs a
student's attention before starting the lesson, a dog handler must have the dog's
attention before she can begin teaching. No attention? No learning. Focus,
or paying attention, is a learned behavior just like anything else you teach
your dog. It's not hard to teach and it's not hard to train, but you DO have to
do the work.
Not practicing through the four
stages of learning: acquisition, fluency, generalization and maintenance.
First, the dog has to begin to acquire the skill of focusing on you (the
behavior). Then, you continue to practice so that the behavior is fluent and
occurring regularly. Next, generalize the behavior of focusing on you in a
variety of places and settings, always beginning in a low-distraction
environment and, as your dog makes progress, moving to a slightly more
distracting environment. Do this before ever practicing in a highly distracting
environment (such as off-leash play with other dogs or an agility competition).
Eventually, you'll reach the maintenance phase of learning. Maintenance is when
you continue to practice and reinforce focus so that the behavior stays solid.
Here's an example: I used to be a very good mandolin player. I first
learned to play a few tunes and I got pretty good because I practiced daily. Then
I became fluent and could play a lot of tunes well at home. I then generalized
the behavior of playing the mandolin to a variety of places (at home with
friends, at a music jam in public, playing on stage, etc.) and I maintained
that level of proficiency for a while. But life got busy and I stopped
practicing. Result? My mandolin playing isn't so great anymore.
Punishing the dog for not paying attention. If there's one sure way
to mess up getting attention from your dog, it's yelling or screaming (or,
heaven forbid, hitting) if your dog doesn't immediately give you her attention when
you ask. If you do this, it cements in your dog's brain that you're
unpredictable and scary and the behavior you cherish and want so much is very
likely to not happen again.
So enough of what you don't want. In the next part of this series, we'll discuss s what to do to gain fabulous focus from your dog.
Part Two of the series
Part Three of the series
Part Four of the series
A passionate advocate for
humane, science-based dog training, Lisa Lyle Waggoner is a CPDT-KA, a
Certified Separation Anxiety Trainer, a Pat Miller Certified Trainer-Level 2,
and a dog*tec Dog Walking Academy Instructor. She is the founder of Cold
Nose College in Murphy, North Carolina, with additional locations in Atlanta,
Georgia, and the Space Coast of Florida. She enjoys providing behavior
consulting and training solutions to clients in the tri-state area of North
Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, as well as offering educational opportunities
for dog trainers and dog hobbyists throughout the U.S. www.coldnosecollege.com
photo credit: Wendy Lu [Adopted] via photopin (license)