What is ‘Focus’?

A very frequent comment I hear from dog handlers is that their dog can’t ‘focus’. Their dog is ‘distracted’ by the environment or specific things within it. So, I’d like to take a closer look at this very common problem. This is especially true of competition dogs and a major reason why ring performance falls apart.

First up, what do we mean by ‘focus’? Do we all mean the same thing? Does my definition of focus agree with yours? It’s worth making sure you are very clear about what exactly it is you mean otherwise training for it is going to be difficult!

The dictionary definition of focus is:


Using that definition, do our dogs lack focus? Or are they just focused on the ‘wrong’ things? A dog that is paying acute attention to things in the environment is very focused – he’s just not focused on you or your training plans!

So, most dogs don’t actually lack ‘focus’…

What they lack is an ability to pay attention to what you’d like them to attend to in certain situations. Put like that, it’s not so much a failing of the dog, as a failing of the training: teaching a dog how to shift his attention to what you’d like him to focus on and ignore things going on around him.

Different sports require different types of focus

Remember that for different activities your dog will need to focus on different things: an obedience or rally-o dog needs to focus on their handler; an agility dog needs to be able to switch between handler focus and equipment focus; a tracking dog needs to focus on the scent he is following, not his handler. Luckily ‘focus’ is a skill that can be taught in one context and then transferred to other contexts so for today I’m going to talk about developing handler directed focus.

As a handler, you don’t ‘get him to focus’, you teach him what is relevant and what is not; what is worthy of his attention and what has no value or meaning for him.

Ah…. Now we can see why we have so many problems! Many dogs are ‘multi-tasking’. They are trying to pay attention to you but are also trying to attend to the environment at the same time. This results in the dog switching from one thing to another – a bit like you working at your computer for few seconds or minutes and then going to check Facebook or your email. And each time you switch your attention you the have to go through the ‘where was I?” process to be able to continue with your work task.

The very beginnings

I like to build a foundation skill of being able to disengage from the environment WITHOUT having to be prompted. Below is a video of me doing this with Felix as a very young pup – he’s about 9 weeks old I think. I call this the Attention Game. The function of the game is to teach the dog to snap round back to you to re-engage, as quickly as he is able. The idea is NOT to have to have the dog stare at your face for an extended period of time.

I play this game very, very frequently. My pups get most of their food like this once they have settled in for a few days. Generally, they think it a great game to chase the kibble/treats and then whip round back to me for the next click and treat.



Initiating the game

What you don’t see in the video is how I get the game started. For young pups and untrained dogs, I just toss a treat on the ground as a freebie. Most dogs will scarf up the treat and instantly turn around to see where the next one is coming from. Click ‘n’ treat that re-orientation and toss another treat. Keep going like this until you want to stop. You can easily get through a lot of treats very quickly like this – it’s a lovely, upbeat, high value way to teach your pup the fun of clicker training 🙂

After a couple of sessions, once the pup knows the drill, start saying something like “ready?” before you toss that first freebie treat. Pretty soon you won’t need that freebie as you’ll be able to initiate the game just by saying your word and clicking when your dog whirls around to re-orientate to you.

Start very easy

When you are laying foundation skills always make sure that your very first training sessions are somewhere with zero distractions – or as close as you can get! You’re looking for literally hundreds of successful repetitions of re-orientating to you, without any pausing or checking stuff out etc. Obviously not every rep will be perfect but if your dog is struggling to ‘unglue’ himself from the world around him, then a re-think is in order.

Once the game is working well in different very familiar places, start playing it where there may be minor distractions. This will differ from dog to dog. Don’t be in a hurry to move to this step! I usually take at least a week of playing the game indoors before I’ll try outside. I also keep the pup on lead to limit his exploratory options.

I open all my training sessions like this, even at home. For my experienced dogs I cue “ready?”, do a few reps of the attention game and then move into giving a few cues to engage the thinking bits and then finally move into whatever I wanted to work on that day.

Moving it on

In Part 2 I’ll look at how we move from this simple game at home to using it out and about and in more ‘formal’ training sessions. Make sure to sign up for email updates so you don’t miss it!

Happy training!

– Sarah and the Gang

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