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:
- Undivided attention
- 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.
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