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Training Article: Fabulous Focus, Part 4

In the final part of her series, trainer Lisa Lyle Waggoner discusses improving your dog's focus and conditioning to the performance environment.

Conditioning to noise. Dog sport competitions are noisy and distracting. Long before you ever compete, classically condition your dog to a variety of noises and loud sounds by pairing the new experience with high-value food your dog loves. Visit a dog sports venue (agility competition, dock diving, competition obedience ring); position yourself at the outskirts of the area and pair the experience with yummy food, fun games, and/or positive training of exercises your dog already knows and loves. Insure your dog is comfortable at the outskirts before moving in toward the busier, noisier areas. This is a great time to play the focus and attention games I described. If your dog is successful, you can move a bit closer to the activities; if she's having difficulty focusing on you, increase the distance and help her be successful there before again moving closer.

Set the tone. I think of this as implementing focus and attention games when I first begin an outing with my dog. After parking the car, I get out with my leash in hand and insure I have appropriate reinforcers with me and ready to use. Then, I open the door, attach Willow's leash, and cue her to exit the car. Once she jumps out, I immediately go into capturing attention mode. I wait for her to acknowledge me and mark the behavior and reinforce her for that awesome attention. After a couple of rounds of this, I move on to the Name Game and reinforce her for two or three responses. This takes about 10 to 15 seconds and sets a positive tone for whatever comes next.

If I were in a safe, off-leash environment, as soon as Willow exits the car she will normally offer her attention to me, in which case I immediately mark and reinforce that behavior. If the environment is distracting enough that her focus is elsewhere, I cue her to look at me by saying her name (remember, your dog's name is her cue to look at you and wait for further instruction), then I mark the behavior and reinforce it (either with a piece of yummy food or a game of tug). 

Be your dog's advocate. Always. On any given day or any given moment, be ready to let your dog relax or head home if she doesn't seem to be having fun. You want your dog to be happy and enjoy the experience. Don't sacrifice your dog's emotional well-being for your own personal goals. Your dog's comfort is what's most important.

Like a professional golfer who continues to practice her putting skills daily so that her end game will be sharp, you should incorporate focus and attention games into daily life with your dog so that your dog's focus will stay strong. Remember, the fourth stage of learning is maintenance. If you periodically reinforce your dog's focus and attention, from this day forward and forevermore, you'll have what I call fabulous focus! 

Know Canine Body Language: This photo was taken at Paws in the Park, a festival celebrating dogs. This dog is very uncomfortable in the festival environment, as evidenced by his body language (lowered body posture, furrowed brow, lowered ear carriage and foaming at the mouth). Not only is this dog very uncomfortable, but the dog's handler is paying no attention to this dog. If the handler had learned to focus on her dog and understood dog body language and stress signals, she could have moved the dog to the outskirts of the festival to work on helping the dog become more comfortable or removed the dog from the environment altogether.

Read Part 1 of the series

Read Part 2 of the series

Read Part 3 of the series

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