If you and your dog are going to work together as a team, then it seems pretty essential that the two of you must be paying attention to each other. This may sound like a quote from Captain Obvious, but somehow this simple concept gets glossed over by many handlers in favor of teaching more ‘fun’ or ‘exciting’ things like running through tunnels and jumping jumps. Sadly, the lack of a dog that can focus on its’ handler almost always comes back to haunt the team later when Fluffy goes off to sniff the entire perimeter of a great big trial ring on the fist time out or when Pookie decides it’s just so much fun RUNNING, that the carefully planned path laid out by their owner just isn’t worth the effort … it’s way better opening up the throttle and running everywhere, maybe taking a few pieces of equipment along the way.
I have seen both of those dogs in the ring dozens of times over the years, I have had their owners come to me for help, and every time I encounter the disconnected team, my heart goes out to them because I was that handler when I started with my first agility partner. The good news is that by training here RIGHT FROM THE START, you will avoid this frustrating and demoralizing setback … and if you are already in this situation you CAN fix it and gain the focus you need to work together as an efficient team. I’m here to help… as I have with many others who train here!
Here’s what I recommend to develop a more focused dog:
Hand Feed. Be your dog’s Automatic Treat Machine. Don’t leave a bowl on the floor for self-feeding, don’t drop a measured bowl of kibble on the floor twice a day at meal time; instead, feed by way of rewarding good behaviors throughout the day. “Yes, but Jeff, my dog’s going to be constantly following me around trying to figure out how to get the food out of my pocket!” My reply: “Think about what you just said.” That’s exactly the kind of focus you want your dog to have when there are dozens of other dogs and humans and whatever distractions surrounding you in a trial environment. Every time you reward by hand, the scent of the oils in your skin reminds you dog where that goodness is coming from. This doesn’t have to go on forever… usually you will see a far more reliable dog in 2 – 4 weeks, at which time you may choose to fade back to bowl-feeding, or you may keep it going because it brings both of you joy.
Train Eyes as a command. Your dog’s name should not be an instruction to do something, it’s a designation – using it any other way opens the door to confusion. Eyes (or “watch me” if you prefer to be more verbose with your dog), simply means look at me. If you can get your dog to look at you, then you can reward a desired behavior, give another instruction, avoid focus on something undesirable, you name it. Getting your dog to look at you is where it all starts, so train the dog to look at you with Eyes.
If the dog shows a higher than usual level of anxiety in certain situations, we also work them through a widely accepted and highly effective relaxation protocol. When implemented properly, this series of exercises and experiences can take almost any dog from being “on edge” the majority of the time to “chillin'” in a matter of weeks. It has been particularly useful for teams that have a hard time getting a reliable start-line stay.
Finally, two things for you to keep in mind as the “other half of the team”. You should be the one to establish game on and game off, meaning you determine when you want the dog’s 100% attention. Don’t abuse that power, let the dog be a dog more than you expect the dog to be laser focused on what you are doing. Keep it very short in the beginning and with younger dogs, gradually increasing the time you are “locked in”. Second, your dog will only pay attention to you if you are mindful of them. Don’t go for a social stroll about and get engaged in a human conversation, forgetting that the dog is on the other end of the leash. You always need to be setting your dog up for success and watching to avoid the potential of a bad experience!