Building Focus with Your Dog – March 14, 2012

• Plan ahead. Know which exercise you’ll be training and be prepared to promptly and effectively deliver that reward when your dog produces the desired behavior. You miss a learning opportunity and your dog’s focus is dissembled when you send changing body signals to your dog by rooting around in your pockets for a food reward, or trying to untangle a something from your belt.
• Orchestrate success. Introduce early focus-building exercises in a quiet environment without distractions. As your dog develops its focus skills, incrementally transition the exercises to more stimulating environments. Key the training environment to your dog’s focus skill level with an appropriate progression over time from a distraction-free environment to a highly stimulating one. Prematurely expecting or demanding too much of the dog will set the scene for failure for the dog, for you, and for the overall training.
• If you are using a ball/toy/tug reward in your training, identify the one that is most favored by your dog and reserve it for training purposes only. Don’t allow your dog to have access to this favored item during idle moments, in the crate, for puppy teething/chewing, etc.
• Avoid displaying the reward visibly in your hand, and inadvertently making it the primary object of your dog’s focus. A tug can be tucked into your waistband, a ball in your pocket, or food kept out of sight in a pouch at your side, until needed for reward purposes.
• Keep it up close and personal. Use a leash length that keeps the dog in close physical proximity to you. When using a toy reward in the training, keep it close to your body. A ball on a short leather lead, or a tug with handle, will provide an outstanding reward while keeping the dog physically close to, interacting with, and focused on, you.
• Make your dog’s play time fun and exciting one-on-one interaction with you. Allowing your dog to spend all of its recreational time with other dogs or other people will diminish your position as the most interesting, rewarding, and desired prize in the universe. Allowing your dog to regularly run freely with other dogs, either at home or at an off-leash park, is squandering time, energy, and focus better spent with you in constructive play in training.
• Familiarize yourself with the basics of Operant Conditioning and develop your own method of precisely marking desired behaviors (e.g. clicker, vocalization) and rewarding appropriately (e.g. food, toy, praise, release). Build the intensity and duration of your dog’s focused obedience by incrementally extending the period of time between (a) marking the correct response to your command, and (b) rewarding it.
• Maintain consistency in your total body language, hand signals, and verbal commands. The more precise and unambiguous your communications, the less unwanted distractions to potentially diminish your dog’s sensory awareness of and focus on you.

• Deliver a clear and consistent command to mark the end of a focused obedience exercise. “Okay”, “Break”, “Release”, and “Free” or “Free Dog” are examples of unique release commands. The release command builds anticipation and focus by signaling the completion of a required behavior and releasing the dog physically and psychologically from the stressors of training. The release command can be supplemented with a reward, or it can be a reward in and of itself.
• Crate-train your dog and utilize its time in the crate for resting periods between training and play interaction. Allowing your dog to idle around the yard or house 24/7, especially in your absence, creates boredom and encourages the dog to identify alternate sources of stimulus and pleasure.
• Utilize moments of interaction with your dog as spontaneous training opportunities. Create the environment where your dog is earning each desired activity. For example, require a sit before allowing your dog access to his food bowl; a wait before going through the door into the house; a quiet before being allowed out of the crate or kennel; a teeth, ears, or toes command and examination before petting. Vary the required behaviors to maintain spontaneity and keep your dog alert and focused on you to hear, see, or feel your command.
• Create an attitude of purpose and direction in your daily walks. A purposeful, energetic walk with many turns and changes of pace and terrain will build the dog’s focus on you and secure its confidence in your leadership. A slow, lazy walk in a straight line will allow your dog to sniff and smell whatever strikes its fancy and encourage a head-down, indiscriminately scenting dog intent on ‘reading the newspaper.
• Employ the powerful effects of touch. Regular grooming and massage sessions with your canine partner are superb opportunities for bonding. The stronger the bond between you and your partner, the better the focus. Spending quiet, one-on-one time in close physical contact is relaxing and healthful for both you and your dog, and is the surest way to closely examine your dog from nose to tail tip to identify and treat minor health issues before they become major.
• Shape your dog’s behavior to await your explicit permission to sniff and greet other people or animals. Withhold that permission far more often than you grant it.
• Take control of the learning curve. Proactively create opportunities for your dog to successfully learn and develop desired behaviors and skills. When this is done correctly, you should be generating 500 opportunities to praise your dog for every one time you correct your dog.
• Less is more. A five-minute training session with an energetic, enthusiastic, highly focused dog and handler that concludes with a celebration of success will always be more productive than a 60-minute training session with progressively diminishing mental and physical resources that concludes in frustration and failure.
• At the end of every training or play session, leave your dog wanting more, more, more and enthusiastically looking to you to provide it!

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