It seems no matter how hard I work, focus is still an issue for Risa. While it’s true that I really only realized the depth of this issue once we started competing regularly, it’s always been a problem. I remember, when I first brought Risa home, feeling like the anchor on the end of the leash. She never connected with me. It was if she didn’t even realize or care that I was there. We have made progress regarding focus in general but I am still unable to get that unwavering, direct eye contact in the ring.
Perhaps it’s an unachievable goal. Risa’s nature makes her a hyper-vigilant dog. Constantly scanning and concerned about what is going on around her. I also have rewarded her curiosity over the years and find it hard to curb at times. After all, I still encourage her to check things out. To realize that it’s not scary. I refuse to even mildly correct her for investigating things and so I’m left with simply trying to be more interesting than the world. Which is an impossible task.
I have realized that I may never get that unbreakable eye-contact focus that I’ve seen so beautifully demonstrated by many other competitive teams. If I’m honest with myself, I’m completely okay with that. I understand Risa and I know that she really has to feel comfortable and trusting to maintain eye contact with me in a crazy, busy trial arena. She trusts me. I have no doubt she does. But she still seems to feel better when she can look around. And so I lose eye contact from her when we trial. For the most part, at least, she remains focused on the task at hand. She forges a bit and often sniffs and I occasionally have to re-cue a behavior. I accept this and move on but constantly strive for better.
Before our first APDT rally trial, I realized that I hadn’t spent a lot of time on focused heeling. This should have been obvious before especially after her focus breakdown in April’s AKC rally trial. I was determined to spend more time working on Risa’s focus in heel position and making heeling itself more rewarding and fun for both of us. (To be honest, I don’t find heeling all that enjoyable so we really hadn’t worked on it much.) I spent 2 months focusing on focus training in preparation for the next AKC rally trial. I also knew that working on heelwork would benefit our freestyle routines and future performances in APDT.
I started by varying the rewards for heelwork. I pocketed our training tug and whipped it out when she was focused and moving with me. I rewarded her with petting and butt scritches along with the games of tug and treats. I worked on just taking one focused-step at a time. I slowly worked up to several steps keeping my criteria high: Risa must be making eye contact with me the entire time until I mark the end of the behavior. If she lost focus, I stopped moving and waited several seconds before re-cuing and starting again. Her focus definitely improved but it still wasn’t exactly what I wanted. She often disengages as soon as the reward is given (or the reward session is over). When there are scents on the wind or cars driving by, she’s still distracted.
Even though I didn’t get exactly the level of focus I wanted from our training when we last stepped into the ring, I could still see improvement. I knew I was on the right track, at least. I just needed to work a little harder.
So I started by adding a small bowl of food to our ‘course’ when we train (since Risa found the food in the off-set figure 8 too enticing to ignore at our last trial). Right now, it’s filled with the same treats I use to train with all the time. A low-level of distraction. The first time I put it out there, I lost Risa almost immediately. She had to go check out the food. (It’s in a plastic baggie inside the dish so she can’t eat it and get rewarded for taking off on me.) I decided, before we started, that I would end the session if she disengaged from me. As soon as she left to investigate the food smell, I cued “All done.” I walked over, grabbed her collar, put her leash back on, and put her in her kennel. I waited several minutes and then brought her out to try again. I’ve only been doing this for about a week and there has been some improvement. Ris is still pretty interested in following her nose to check out the food but I am not having to end sessions quite as frequently. There is hope!
I’m also trying something that I recently learned watching one of Susan Garrett’s webinars. (You should sign up to be informed of these if you haven’t already. They’re GREAT! You can learn more and sign up here.) Susan was discussing transferring value from something the dog loves to do to another behavior. The focus was on playing; creating a game that makes your dog want to engage and do that behavior with you. It took me a while to discover what sort of game we could play that would be exciting enough to keep Risa’s attention but not be so stimulating that she was unable to think of anything else. I finally settled on having her run with/chase me.
It’s important to know, when you’re training, what motivates your dog. And Risa loves to run. I’m always trying to find ways to incorporate this unbridled joy of speeding along like a maniac into our training sessions. I thought of using the flirt pole as a reward but ultimately decided against it for now. There were two reasons why. The first was that she gets a bit to narrowly focused when she goes after the flirt pole. It’s much like lure coursing for her; she only sees the bunny. Secondly, I wanted the focus to be on me as a reward. I always go into the ring with Ri when we compete so I want to help me be a decent reward too.
So I went outside and cued Risa to heel. When I got several steps of focused heeling, I said one of the long praise words I’ve been using before I reward her with petting and took off at a run. She chased me around the yard for a while as I praised her awesomeness. Then I reset and tried again. I did this several times and then called it quits. I wanted to keep the session short. . .and I also got a wee bit out of breath from racing around the yard. 😉 I have only done this a few times so it’s unclear yet whether or not it’s working. I also haven’t decided whether I should mark the good heeling then reward or simply keep up what I am currently doing. One thing is clear, though. Risa likes to chase me as a reward!
With a little more than a month to go before our next trial, I’m hopeful that we’ll have even better focus then. I’m planning on slowly increasing the distraction level of the food in the bowl so that I won’t simply have to pray there is no off-set figure 8 on the course this time. 😉 I intend to keep doing what I was doing before along with adding in some of the new things I’ve learned. Rewarding heeling with running is going to be a bit trickier as the weather turns nasty; there isn’t enough room to full out run in the house! I’m also going to have to work around more distractions which likely means more trips to pet stores. Risa hates going to pet stores; I ruined them for her early on in our relationship by taking her there before she was ready to go. She got too overwhelmed. But, if I can get her to focus and work with me there, that sets us up for more success in the ring!
I think focus is always going to be a struggle for us but I’m not willing to admit defeat. I will keep working on it and I’m always open to new suggestions and ideas. Hopefully, by the time we’re in the ring to compete again, Risa will be a much more focused working partner and we can finally earn our RA and look like a bonded team doing it!