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We've all seen those dogs who stare adoringly at their owners. Dogs who, even in the face of tough distractions, their attention is infallible. You may have wondered if you can get such great attention with your own dog. The good news is, you can! Are you ready for the secret? Teach it! Great attention is made, not born - plain and simple.
Attention and focus is something that we can break down into broad categories and then individual drills. In this post, we'll talk about the categories. If you want more, join us for the Attention Workshop!
Solicited Attention - Look At Me
This is the most common form of attention. I typically teach it using a lure like food or an attention-getting noise. I teach "look at me" as one of the cues in my repertoire with my dogs. As a taught skill, I expect my dogs to be able to respond to the cue regardless of the distractions around. Starting in a quiet environment is a must, but you should quickly move towards adding distractions and duration to this exercise. To aid my dog's understanding, I always teach this cue as a stationary exercise to start. By placing my dog in control position, I minimize the chance that he'll make a mistake. I can then build loads of value for focusing on me and ignoring distractions in response to the cue. The cue look at me, taught well, will enable my dog to block out the environment and focus on me instead.
Moving Attention - Look At Me
Once my dog understands the cue as a stationary exercise, I'll add movement. There's no specific position your dog should be in for this. I eventually want my dog to respond to the 'look at me' cue from anywhere around me.
This is a truly handy cue to have. As you and your dog move, you can call on them to focus on you as they're walking at your left or if you need to back away from a distraction, you can ask for a look at me with your dog in front.
Have fun figuring out how to make this cue a great asset for your training repertoire!
Voluntary Attention - No cue
Voluntary attention is a captured behaviour. It's a more advanced skill where the dog needs to have a good history of reinforcement in order to offer or volunteer attention.
As the name implies, we don't cue the dog for voluntary attention. We reinforce their efforts to focus on us in the face of distractions. As with any new skill, I'll always start in a quiet environment first and then add distractions or move to new locations once my dog is experienced.
Voluntary attention is something that I might use at a park where my dog has previously noted squirrels or other fun distractions. It's the perfect environment to bring the concept of voluntary attention to. If you were to use solicited attention in this situation, your dog will likely look at you until the end of the look at me cue and then, they'll be right back to looking for squirrels again. They've done what you asked and now, they're back to self-reinforcement mode.
Instead of asking for attention, why not capture your dog's offered attention? That way, they get used to either offering you consistent attention or checking in temporarily to see if engagement with you is an option.
To teach voluntary attention, I would go to this park with my dog on a short leash to limit his options. The goal is to have him focus on me voluntarily, so to start with, I'll just wait and watch my dog. I typically start with my dog in control position so that he has the benefit of experience (what do you normally do in control position?) to help him put this together. Without saying anything, I'll just wait for my dog to look up at me. The second they do, I'll mark it with "yes" or a clicker, and reward.
The first time you do this in any new environment will be the longest wait. It will get quicker as your dog gets the idea. Whatever you do, resist the urge to help. Remember that you are looking for your dog to be reinforced for his choice to look at you. This will build a very strong response to focusing in tough environments if it's the dog's choice. The reason this works is that you're manipulating the dog into making his self-reinforcement something you love too! What a win-win!
Eventually, reward longer durations and quicker check-ins. I will turn this into reinforcement for looking to me when out and about on trails, etc. I always want my dog thinking about me and looking for opportunities to engage rather than tuning me out in busy or exciting environments.
Attention Despite Distraction
Remembering that the eventual goal of attention work is that you can call on your dog for quick focus from anywhere, at anytime and with any distractions present, it's imperative that you train them through distractions. This is where the set up comes in handy. I always take charge of my dog's learning through distractions so I can control the rate and build success. I never drop my dog into the middle of distractions and just hope for the best. Now that you have the skills necessary, it's just a matter of adding incremental distractions to your practise time at a rate your dog can be successful. The more you practise adding distractions to your training, the better trained your dog will be as they'll have learned to deal with distractions.
In the end, that flawless attention you envy can be yours as well after a bit of planning and elbow grease!
As always, Happy Training!