Updated: May 22, 2020
Focussing on the human is not as natural a skill as you might think. Dogs are naturally drawn to other dogs (or other dogs things, like smells and sights in their environments!) and we need to put some work into teaching them to connect with us. Some dogs definitely learn this easier than others and for some, just rewarding them in training sessions will create this connection. But many dogs still get easily distracted by their environments and will only partially stay connected with their team mate. In the past, I dealt with this by telling people to be more exciting than their environment. You need to keep the dog busy so they don't get a moment while they are out working with you to be distracted by things. I am sure many of you have been told the same by top trainers! This again works for some dogs, but it is only randomly successful and generally dogs still would leave their handlers. It also puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on the handler and if at any moment they need to think about something and lose the connection for even a second, their dogs are off!. Over a year ago, there was a particular dog and handler combo in Sydney that came regularly to my sessions down there. Penny Mead and her little dog Scout. We would try to make sure Scout didn't have any time to think about distractions and keep her moving. Scout is an absolute super star agility dog and has amazing skills and does agility like a rocket, thanks to Penny's fantastic training. But it would literally take one moment of things going wrong in a sequence and the dog would race off to go say hi to people and sniff the ground. We saw some improvements in how much agility they could successfully do, but it was still frustrating when she would leave mid sessions.
There was a session where I decided to try a change for this team. I said to Penny lets get her to offer you eye contact before work. It seems simple right? But when a dog is distracted by the environment, eye contact with the handler isn't easy! I gave Penny the task of working on that between my seminars down there and told her to work on eye contact, one jump then reward and gradually build on the amount of work. The next time I was down there I was absolutely blown away by the change! The whole seminar Scouty didn't leave during work once and it was night and day from previous seminars. I was so proud of them both and it literally made me feel like crying. Actually I may have! lol So what was the big difference in what we did? It was that we taught the dog to offer handler focus, in order to do some work and get rewards at the end. Previously by getting the handler to be the party and not let the dog disconnect, it was acting as a bandaid to the issue. We were trying not to let the dog see or be still long enough, to get distracted by the things. What we need is the dog to choose us over these distractions! If the dog is making the choice, then you sincerely have their attention instead of having to work super hard to not let that attention stray.
In following seminars that I taught around the country, I regularly saw varying levels of this issue and I couldn't help but think how many dogs would benefit from this type of change to their training. About 6 months ago, I put together a workshop to try to teach a systematic way to teach the dogs to choose to connect with us. I taught it here, at Red Dog Agility and also started to add these sessions into the seminars when I was away. It was super satisfying to be able to really give handlers a better insight into why these dogs get distracted, how we can help change that and giving them the tools to read their dogs better as well.
Then COVID19 came along and screwed everything! haha The positive out of these awful circumstances, is that I decided to do an online version of the workshop. In many ways, I think this is better than in person because people often don't remember everything that I've said and aren't sure what to do when they go home to practice. With an online workshop, you have all the information of the steps, and it's super easy to follow and you can refer back whenever you need. I could include video and since this is all the stuff I was teaching my puppy Brilliant, it's the perfect time too! Brilliant is the first puppy I have trained offered focus as a thing. My other dogs were in the first category I talked about above and they automatically did it when they worked out fun things happened with me. From a baby puppy, Brilliant has been showing how much teaching that skill has worked when we are out and about. He is amazing at offering focus in all sorts of environments and he still only 4.5 months. We are also gradually adding levels of distractions into his games and seeing what he can handle and so far he is rocking it!
I'm also making sure he learns when he needs to focus and when he can be a normal dog and do all the doggy things his brain needs as well. I have to think carefully about how I communicate what a training session looks like and how I let him know when he is training and when he can just be a dog! As I often say, humans are confusing and dogs usually kind of have to work out all our little tells for this, but having start and finish work communication (verbal and physical) can help the dogs so much more than if they just have to work us out.
If you are interested in learning how to systematically teach offered engagement and create structure to your sessions, that are much clearer for the dogs, then come and join me in my new mini course - Focus and Engagement!
It's great value, as everyone can post video for feedback and you get 3 months access so plenty of time if life gets busy. Right now is the best time to train this given we are all mostly stuck at home and unable to get to comps or training at clubs. Teach your dog to be focussed at home, where it's much easier and then gradually add distractions to that. Then when everything opens back up, your dog will be ready for the next challenges of those distractions!