Following on from my last blog post about why things go wrong in the ring and our discussion about fluency, there is a ‘hidden’ behaviour that also needs to be fluent and yet so often isn’t.
That behaviour is Attention.
Some dogs come out the womb just looking for the nearest human to watch and idolise. These dogs do amazingly well in any area of competition – your wish is their desire, no training necessary. I’ve had two dogs like that and, although there is a flip side to all that adoration, it makes training sports behaviours an absolute dream.
Unfortunately, most of us do not have these dogs. We have normal ones. Ones with their own ideas, interests and agendas. Ones who find investigating and watching the environment highly interesting and rewarding.
So, what do we do to teach attention?
There are two main ways to teach a dog to pay attention to us:
- Use punishment to convince the dog to pay close attention because the consequences of NOT paying attention are very yucky.
This works, no doubt about it, but this isn’t my preferred option, and, if you have followed me so far, I suspect it’s not yours either. So, let’s move on to something better:
- Teach the dog to offer engagement, attention and focus willingly and freely because doing so results in all sorts of amazing fun. Now, doesn’t that sound better?
However, what usually happens?
Well, first off, we don’t teach offered attention in any shape manner or form. The dog only pays attention when asked to do something. Usually it looks like this:
Dog is staring into the middle distance. Handler says Dog’s name, cues ‘watch’, jiggles the lead, pulls a tuft of hair or some such thing. Dog orients to handler and gets a cookie. If the handler is on the ball they then move into doing some stuff together and everything looks hunky-dory.
If the handler is not on the ball, or there is something compelling in the environment, the dog immediately goes back to what it was originally doing – watching everything BUT the handler. So, handler repeats the name/watch cue, and so it goes.
The second scenario is usually picked up as less than ideal and, sometimes, something appropriate is done about it – usually the dog is moved to somewhere quieter and less distracting.
However, it is the first scenario that will totally have you fooled. You THINK the dog is engaged and working – and it is.
Until it isn’t.
Something happens to distract the dog, and he’s mentally left again.
You re-cue or prompt attention and off you go.
Rinse and repeat.
Why is this a pain?
Because the dog is NOT taking responsibility for maintaining attention and focus, the handler is doing that job. The behaviour of maintaining work focus is not fluent – the dog can’t do it without the support and prompting of the handler.
That’s fine at lower levels of competition but not so useful higher up when you can’t give as much help and the tasks required are so much more complex. In those situations, your whole performance will crumble because the behaviour of attention and focus underpinning it is built on an illusion.
As Jane Killion says in her Puppy Culture DVD “Attention is the Mother of all behaviours”.
What’s the solution??
So, if you want a dog who OFFERS attention and doesn’t need nagging, who isn’t prone to distraction and who can perform confidently, you need to build the ‘attention muscle’ right from the start. Don’t fuss about fancy stuff; lay a solid foundation and build from there. It’s not complicated, you just need observation skills and some patience. From there you can capture, shape and strengthen what you need.
Next time we’ll look at some other training practices that shoot competitors in the foot. I’ll be pulling apart our lazy habits with rewards – their use, mis-use and abuse. See you next time!
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