Saturday, January 23, 2010

Building Focus

I don't know about you, but I think that being able to focus is a skill that is built over time. Paying attention is certainly not a skill that I was born with. I've been thinking about this for a few weeks now. Nearly every time I go out walking with Jason I come across another dog--or even a child--that reminds both of us that paying attention is a skill that has to be practiced and practiced (and yes, then practiced some more).

For example, consider my interest in Canadian geese. It's in my nature to chase after them each and every time I see them. I'm a herding dog by breeding, so when I see geese I want to gather the gaggle and move them back and forth across the field. It doesn't matter if Jason tells me to sit, or stay. It doesn't matter if he yells at me to sit and stay. Sooner or later I'm going to move and do what I'm supposed to do (herd those pesky geese).

Thankfully Jason doesn't yell at me. He usually remembers that I'm just a little puppy, I need lots of reminders, and over time I can grow into having more focus and attention.

Today in class we had some great opportunities to build focus and expand attention. After a play period out in the fenced in yard at school, we all gathered inside and took a few minutes with our owners to get calm and centered.

Being a puppy, this was a hard task for me! I wasn't done playing. It took me awhile but I did settle down. How did I do it? Jason consistently noticed every time I looked at him. When I did, he said "focus", clicked the clicker, and gave me a reward (a pet, an excited "good girl", or a bit of food). While the other dogs were more interesting than him, I liked the reward so I had lots of incentive to keep looking at him.

When everyone was focused one dog/person team would get up and slowly walk around the room. While this was happening the other dogs had a task: keep their focus on their owners. Easier said than done with all the cute fur balls running around.

I did pretty well at the focusing part while we were sitting down. When it came to my turn to walk around the room, it was a little more challenging. I've got two things working against me: I'm part Basset Hound so my nose is powerful and I need to smell everything and I'm a puppy so everything is new and I want to check it out. I did some tugging and pulling on the leash.

Jason had a decision to make. He needed to make a correction. This could be done by pulling on the leash and turning in the opposite direction. Most of the TV trainers do some variation of this move. Jason could be really ineffective and yell at me (do you listen more when you are yelled at?). He could redirect my attention by saying focus and rewarding me with attention or a treat when I look. What did he do? He went with the last choice. He let me do what was in my nature (sniff and explore) and caught me each and every time I looked at him (a click with the clicker  immediately followed by a good girl or a small piece of food).

It takes a lot of time and energy to teach a dog to focus. More dramatic interventions like yelling or hard yanks on a collar that tightens around a dogs neck might quickly teach me to follow close because if I don't something bad will happen. Do I want to learn that bad things happen when I explore and discover new things? Not really: I will become afraid of discovery and curiosity.

It takes an investment of time and energy to teach a dog to focus--and build attention--through the method that Jason has picked for me. It's worth it--I learn that its safe to explore new things but I also learn limits. I develop a close and intense relationship with Jason: all this focusing and looking at him teaches me that when he's around, good things happen; when he's around I am safe; and when he asks me to do something and I comply, even more good things happen. Why would I not want to listen?

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