This is the second part of a two part series on teaching our dogs how to focus on us in interesting places. PART ONE examined the concept of ‘focus’ from a dog training perspective and looked at how to teach the foundation skill of reorienting to us from distractions. If you’ve not read it yet, that blog can be found here. This time I want to look at how to move from the foundation skill building game into how to use it in real life scenarios – and why we should. ‘Focus’ isn’t just a basic game to play with puppies, it lets us assess how ready our dogs are to engage and work with us and not be distracted by the environment – a very common problem.
The real world
Once your dog can play this game enthusiastically around your home and yard and is VERY practiced at it, even with minor distractions such as another person in the room minding their own business, it is time to consider how to build this skill out and about.
The importance of feeling safe
One thing that humans tend to forget is that although we know that a place is safe, our dogs don’t. For most dogs, the best way to help them feel relaxed in a space is to let them explore it before we ask them to work for us.
With this in mind it makes sense to give them the opportunity to really check out their environment BEFORE we ask for attention to us or any type of ‘work’. If we don’t, we end up with a dog who is trying to multi-task – checking out the space AND paying attention etc. This is less than ideal!
Building expectations and listening to the dog
Here is the step by step process I use whenever I go somewhere to train or compete. The more experienced the dog is, the quicker you can go through the steps. I find that having a set routine like this, and using it every time I train, quickly leads to the dog predicting the routine and being ‘work’ ready and focused very easily.
Having a process also gives me a very easy way to assess how comfortable my dog is in any given situation. If he sails through the steps easily, then he’s pretty comfortable and I can feel confident that he’ll be able to give me his best efforts. If, on the other hand, he struggles at any step, then I know that pushing on is a waste of time because he’s either not comfortable, too excited or just plain too interested in the environment. Best thing I can do is move him further away and go through the steps again until he either settles or I decide that this isn’t a great place for training.
1) Acclimation walk
Go for a relaxed wander around the training/trial area. Allow the dog to sniff and check things out. Remember that for dogs, scents change, even if the place looks exactly the same to us each time.
Allow the dog to look at whatever is going on around him. Take your time, don’t rush. You want your dog to be comfortable and relaxed. Don’t be tempted to use food to get his attention – just let him be a dog. If he checks in with you, praise him, pet him and send him back to sniffing and exploring. Depending on how familiar the place is, step (1) can take anywhere between 5 to 30 min to complete.
In the video below you see me taking Felix, my 8 month old border collie pup, for an acclimation walk around a sports oval. It’s busy! There are practice games happening, spectators, dogs and traffic. He’s been here once or twice before but never when it has been in use like this. He copes very well, keep calm but checks everything around him in a healthy manner.
2) Can he take treats?
Once he has had a good chance to check out the new space I will do a quick ‘can you eat’ check. Some dogs look relaxed but are still emotionally too wired to eat. Once he can take treats happily (without taking your fingers too), move on to the next step.
Can’t eat, even though he’s usually a foodie? Go back to wandering for a few minutes – but keep to areas that you have already covered so you aren’t up against novelty. Keep moving and be cautious about letting him stand and stare; you don’t want him to get so ‘sucked in’ to the interesting things that he would prefer to watch the show than play with you!
3) Can he disengage from the environment?
Play the attention game – toss the food far enough that he has to turn well away from you to get the treat. Can he turn back and re-engage immediately?
Or is he ‘sticky’ – taking a second or two to gawp before re-engaging? All fast and good? Move on. Sticky? Go back to wandering for a few more minutes, or move further from the action, then try the attention game again.
4. Can he process incoming information?
If he has well known clues like touch, spin, down etc. can he respond to them? Yes? All snappy and clean? Go on to your training session. Incorrect, slow or messy response? Go back to the attention game. Failure to respond to well known cues tells you that his head’s not in the game – he’s still thinking of other things, even if his eyes are on you! just because he wants to work for you, doesn’t necessarily mean he successfully can.
The video below shows me taking Felix through his warm up routine. We start with testing to see if he can take food. Felix can always eat but if he’s too aroused to think I might not keep my fingers! Next we play the Attention game – to check that he can disengage from the environment. Lastly we do some cue checking. Near the end of the video you will see him make a couple of mistakes and I go back to the attention game to take some ‘cognitive load’ off and give him a break.
For a new pup or untrained dog, I will only get as far as the attention game. Why? Because in the very early stages of training I don’t expect my dog to be able to respond instantly and correctly to cues in a new place. Being able to re-orientate and attend to me is a big enough ask in my opinion.
All of these steps need to be practiced and your dog able to comfortably do each one before you actually start your ‘training’ session. Be prepared to scratch a training plan if your dog just isn’t ready to work. He’s telling you that for some reason he can’t concentrate in the environment, or doesn’t feel great today or whatever. No point at all in trying to work a dog who is only half there so don’t risk breaking things or building unpleasant associations by pushing it!
Remember that this protocol won’t work with every dog. Some very confident, environmentally driven dogs may need a modified version of this. However, in general, I have had a lot of success using this method, both with my own dogs and clients’ dogs. The dogs that seem to benefit the most are the ones that are slightly hesitant in busy or new places. The stages give you, the handler, a way to check how your dog is feeling at each stage before pushing on to more demanding levels. If your dog ‘fails’ a level, they are not being naughty or blowing you off! You are just asking more than they can give at that moment.
I also use this exact same process before we go into the ring. It sets the scene for my dog as a predictable routine and allows me to assess his arousal level and adjust accordingly before we actually compete.
It is NOT a quick fix! It can take a concerted effort to turn around a long-standing habit of checking in and out from work. The foundation behaviour of re-orientation needs to be SUPER strong and very well practiced, don’t skimp that bit because it seems so simple!
– Sarah and the Gang
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