I think that one of the reasons “attention training” is still such a mystery for
many in dog training is that its definition is too narrow. Obviously you have to start somewhere, and if you are an instructor, you have to come up with a program that you can communicate and groups of people with various skill levels and a variety of dogs can emulate. But the bottom line is that the common eye contact while stationary that is the foundation for attention programs sometimes is not enough, not versatile enough, and in some circumstances it is actually counterproductive.
Visual focus is recognizable. But if your dog is taught to look at your eyes,
what happens when you move your eyes away from your dog’s eyes? Will your dog seek the view, forging ahead out of heel position to do so? Or will he decide if you are not focusing he doesn’t need to either? This is why so many successful trainers teach their dogs to focus on other targets visually when in heel position, ranging from hands, watchbands or bracelets, to armbands. They are targets that remain more consistently in place.
There is also anticipatory attention. This is the kind that we get addicted to
seeing in training. The dogs are excited, bouncy, happy, and looking for the anticipated production of a treat or toy. It’s great. It’s necessary in some aspects of training; but it’s also not reliable, because it’s a bit of trickery that not all dogs are going to fall for very long once they begin to show. This doesn’t mean I don’t advocate using treats or toys in training, but it means we must be very aware of their allure to us as well as to our dogs, and be really careful that we don’t become dependent on them or use them to avoid the need to teach some dogs that allowing attention to drift from us is disrespectful and wrong when working together.
The bottom line is that at some point, you have to develop what I will call
functional attention. This is a state of mind in which the dog is focusing on you and on the skills and jobs you are asking him to do. You develop functional attention gradually as your training progresses. Its motivations reflect where you are in your training. They include anticipation of rewards, anticipation of varied activities, interest because of complexity, maintenance of self-comfort, and sometimes even a little touch of self-defense.
Let’s look at a progression to illustrate that idea. Because heeling is so
complicated, I’ll choose that.
Stage 1: Visual focus on your chosen target. I’m going to talk about the hand target, since that’s what I use the most, but you could substitute any other useful target for your dog. I wish to teach the dog to look at and move to the hand target. So initially I conceal a treat in my left hand, present the hand fairly close to (but not shoved at) the dog’s face, and let the dog’s nose work. When he touches the hand to investigate the scent of the treat, I mark it and give the dog the treat. After a few repetitions, most dogs start watching the hand carefully and are eager
to move toward it as soon as it is presented. This is pure anticipatory attention and a very simple task; but it is a foundation block to a complicated activity, and we will revisit this step when it’s time to move from trick to task and proof the skills.
Step 2: Focus on the target and follow it, ready to touch it when cued. When I see eagerness, I present the hand such that the dog must cover more distance to hit it, and eventually begin using the closed hand to guide the dog into a left finish, or to follow the hand for several steps before flattening the hand to cue the touch and letting him hit it to get the treat. I practice this a lot with backward walking rather than working in heel position. When the dog is showing confidence, we work this exercise with distractions on the ground so the dog learns to make the choice to keep his visual focus and anticipation on the target hand rather than the distractions, which he can see, but is not physically allowed
to make contact with, no matter how hard he pulls on a leash to try to get to them. Most dogs give up on that struggle after about 3 minutes, and go for the easier success. It is the first introduction to distraction resistance. Those good decisions are rewarded right away and consistently. (This is also a foundation exercise, but one it could benefit many teams to revisit frequently!)
Both of those steps go on the road, so that the young dog learns to
generalize his skills. When in doubt with a busy-body youngster, in a new place go back to square one and build the exercise back up. As the dog shows consistent ability to succeed at giving visual focus in anticipation of being rewarded for following his target, it is easy to then move this into heel position orientation.
Step 3: Clarifying the task. As far as the dog is concerned, following the hand is really more about following the food. Even touching the hand may be more of an accidental byproduct of getting the food rather than a conscious action. Knowing that, you have to clarify things for the dog. Begin this with Two-fers. The dog must touch the hand twice in order to actually get the treat, and the hand gets moved between the first touch and the second touch so that effort to get there is required. Randomize with three-fers, and up to five touches as an outside push for effort, but always with the food in the target hand. You should see progress in harder touches, faster motion toward the hand, and a little question mark floating over your dog’s head at first, but going away as he figures
out that continuing to hit the hand eventually does work.
Then it’s time to hold the food in the right hand, and present the left hand target, both hands in front of the dog. Naturally the dog will try at first to nudge the closed right hand that actually has the food in it. DON’T MOVE THAT HAND! Just let him see that it isn’t opening, and keep the left hand target available. The dog may hit it by accident. The dog might sit back after right hand nudging failures and kind of glare at you. If that happens, keep the right hand closed and stationary, hide the left hand behind your back for a few seconds, and then bring the left hand target back out. Eventually the dog will hit it, and you will praise, quickly switch the food to the left hand, and deliver to the dog.
This stage is where the dog begins to figure out that moving toward the food is NOT the job. Hitting the target, even though he has to move away from the food to hit the target is the best bet for causing rewards to happen, and the dog begins to get an inkling that the food is a result of his effort, but following the food is not as productive as he thought it was. Some dogs are cautious and slow about embracing this concept, while for others it is a major light-bulb moment pretty quickly. Only the dog can determine that, so remember to hold still, be quiet, and let your dog think!!!
All of those steps help solidify visual attention to a focal point (the hand),
and two kinds of anticipatory attention. The dog knows that he will have to hit the hand, although he can’t predict for sure how soon or how often the hand will be available. And he knows that eventually sticking with the task will be rewarded.
Stage 4: Functional attention. Like it or not, personal comfort IS an important motivator in dog training. While I never stop using the hand target touch in training, at some point the dog needs to be globally and physically aware of heel position advantages, and not just visually aware of the target. I go back to step one, and re-charge the hand target with collar pressure toward the loaded hand to show the dog the pressure cue for “You HAVE to do this!” Then with the correction conditioned, we work on hand targeting to the empty hand with distractions happening, and pressure corrections for target failure or rewards for keeping on task.
Then for actual heeling, I put in sudden speed and direction changes often, and ALWAYS when the dog drops focus and effort. If the dog is attentive he can adjust to those sudden changes quickly and avoid any pressure on the collar or any bumps into me. If he’s not attentive, oh, well…he’ll do better pretty soon, and he’ll adjust his position to improve and maintain his personal comfort level more consistently. He’ll learn to pay attention without having to be cajoled on every step. This state of mind may be less pranc-y and dance-y, but it’s often smoother and more consistent overall in the long run.
Give the overall idea of the different kinds of attention some thought in your
training generally. When is the last time you worked on focus as you walked away from your dog for a recall or a signal set? When did you last work on focus DURING a recall? What is the last variation you added to a retrieve or a go out? Is your dog interested in you and the interaction, or is it still all about the treats and toys at the end of a rote routine? Are you still relying on reinforcement momentum alone, or is your dog truly a cooperative partner? This is a great time of year to think about what you want to do to take your partnership up a notch for 2016.
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