As I briefly mentioned before, Risa and I are taking a course on focus through the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. I have frequently mentioned how poor Risa’s focus is. It’s actually a huge frustration point for me. I know she loves to train and I know she has the capacity to show brilliantly (even in obedience and rally) but her inattentiveness in the ring makes it hard for high scores and praise-worthy performances. I feel frequently in conflict with her (and I’d bet she feels the same with me). I want her to be attentive and perform with the precision and grace I know she can. She wants to make sure the boogeyman doesn’t get her or check out the interesting smells left behind by various people and dogs.
One of my main tenets when it comes to training is avoiding conflict whenever possible (easier said than done). I understand Risa’s a dog and her goals and desires are usually vastly different than my own. For example, I walk for exercise and am concerned more with how far we went and how long it took. She, on the other hand, values stopping to sniff things or attempting to chase small furry critters. I compromise when I can so we can both get what we need out of our excursions.
I don’t want to be in constant conflict with my dog whether we’re training or just hanging out together. While I’ve worked with Risa on focus a lot (side effect of having a reactive dog), I still felt like I was always asking for her attention. Despite my insistence that I build focus into my behaviors (which is true), it didn’t matter when I couldn’t get my dog to focus on me so we could start. I might have handler focus walking in heel position but, if I can’t get my dog to respond to the cue because her mind is elsewhere, what good is it? I was always asking her for focus to begin. And, sometimes, she cannot give it to me. Since she’s a fearful dog, I expect this. It requires a lot of trust to ignore what’s going on around you and focus on a single thing. I knew I needed to get her to want to focus on me without me begging for it. I just didn’t know how.
This class has been a godsend. While I feel like I’m a bit behind on the exercises (they keep adding more when Risa can’t even perform certain ones in the boring basement yet), they’re making a huge difference. She’s really starting to offer focus in the hopes that it will initiate work and, of course, rewards. It’s actually pretty amazing to see the change. Every time I toss a treat to reset her for another trial, she eats it and quickly returns for another opportunity. No pleading, begging, or constantly calling her name required. While she’s still not quite to the point where she can run an entire rally course without disengaging a bit, there is still a huge improvement. Especially when I take the time to wait her out. If I wait for her to look at me and engage with me before cuing her to perform, her focus and attention improve greatly. Right now I do have to be patient after every reward I give her when we practice in class. But, when I do, I’m rewarded with a much more willing partner.
There has also been another great side effect of this training. Typically, when I train with toys, I cannot get the toy back. Risa thinks it’s more enjoyable to play with it by herself than continue to interact with me. I usually would need two toys available so that I could encourage her to re-engage with me since I still had one. Or I had to chase her down, get my hands on it, and ask her to release it. Again, I found myself in conflict with my dog. I wanted to keep training. She didn’t want to give up her toy. Last night, when I used a toy to reward her focused performances, she played with it for a little bit and then turned to engage with me again for another opportunity to earn the reward. She wanted the gateway to the toy reinforcement and not just the toy itself. It was awesome.
I have no doubt that, by doing these exercises and practicing in various locations, I will get a more focused dog. I may never get a laser-locked focus from Risa due to her temperament. But that’s okay. I am seeing improvement and I’m excited. I can’t wait to get back in the ring and see the difference in my dog! Which reminds me, we need to practice those behaviors too!