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Training Article: Fabulous Focus, Part 1

Building focus in your dog can improve your relationship and your Rally 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 won't 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? That's 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.

    It's 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 dog's 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 cont

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