Focus Exercises

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Per your request, here is a combination of reading material, focus exercises, and other general techniques that I have been using for the past year with Yukon to help build his focus.  It is still a work in progress -- Yukon’s focus is far from perfect in new places, and he still needs high value treats on “off” days, or when there are a lot of distractions.  But he's getting there!

I'm sure that other folks (especially those with much more experience than what we have) will have more to add, this is how we have started working through some of the same issues you are experiencing with Chloe. I’m sure some of this will be familiar, but hopefully something will be helpful for working with Chloe.  Every dog is different, so keep trying different things and you will find what works for her.   ;)

Exercises for practice at home:

1) Control Unleashed by Leslie McDermott.  It is a really great book with lots of exercises and techniques for helping to develop your dog’s focus. 

2) Karen Overall's Relaxation Protocol.  Basically, it is a series of exercises that gives your dog "tasks" broken down into 15 days.  These exercises are designed to teach your dog to relax and focus on you even as the distractions get greater.  Don't worry about trying to get through them in 15 days -- work on Day 1 as many days as it takes for Chloe to get it, then go to Day 2, etc.  Here is a link where you can get a Word download of the full protocol:

3) Frustration Tolerance.  Something that might help is to build up Chloe’s frustration tolerance and perseverance -- i.e., teach her that even if she doesn’t get it right the first time, if she keeps trying, she will get the cookie eventually.

The way I am building up Yukon’s frustration tolerance is by asking him to keep repeating a behavior that he knows very well, and making him do it multiple times before he gets the cookie.  We are doing this with his "shake" behavior. I ask him for one shake, then give the cookie.  Then two shakes, cookie.  Three shakes, cookie, then four, etc, until he starts showing mild frustration behavior (for Yukon it is licking my hand, or whining/barking softly).  I make sure that the last thing he does before the cookie is a shake, and then I start over at one shake, cookie.  The goal is to get him to where he will do 25 shakes in a row before getting a cookie without quitting or getting frustrated.  The idea is that even if he gets a bit frustrated, he learns how to deal with that frustration by sticking it out.

4) Peanut Butter Spoon.  This is to teach heeling, but I think it helps with focus too.  Take a wooden spoon, dip it in peanut butter.  Hold it up in your left hand.  When your dog gets in heel position, lower the spoon to treat, and then immediately raise it again.  Take one step, lower the spoon to treat in heel position, then step.  You can also do this to reinforce “heeling” on the right hand side for agility, or you can do it just for eye-contact when in a heel position.

Techniques in class:

1) Treats and Toys.  Make a list of Chloe’s 5 favorite treats and toys (one list combined) and bring them with you to class regularly. 

Treats: Always use really high value treats.  Yukon likes smoked salmon.  I will mix that with some of his kibble and other favorites (he also likes Zukes Jerky Naturals Lamb).  Hotdogs are another favorite.  If you start to lose her, increase your rate of reinforcement.  At this stage, treat for eye contact, for heeling, for staying with you.  If the distractions increase, the treats need to increase too.  Once she is focusing on you, you can start asking for more behaviors for each treat.  (Also, I don’t feed Yukon at all the day of a class -- his only food that day is the treats he gets in class.)

Toys:  Sometimes Yukon just isn’t interested in food (even his favorite), but his special furry squeaky toy will immediately get his interest.  He likes fleece tug toys, BiteMeez Hand puppets, and those real rabbit fur mice with the squeaker inside (Cherrybrook sells them). When you use a toy as a reward, play with the dog for as least as long as it took the dog to do the exercise.

2) Handler Focus: Stay engaged with him while other people are taking their turn in class -- use that time to practice focus exercises, simple commands, anything that keeps her working with you instead of tuning out.  I keep a favorite tug toy in Yukon’s bag to play with in between class exercises.  If you have to take a break for yourself -- to walk the course, to ask questions, or any time you can’t be focused on Chloe, tether or crate her so she can’t wander and sniff.

3) Running around.  When Yukon used to get distracted in class and wanted to go sniff and play with other dogs, I would leave him and go play by myself, running, saying "BYE" really loudly, squealing Whheeee!!!, etc -- I've even jumped agility hurdles.  I'm sure it is hilarious and I look crazy to those watching, but it definitely gets his attention.  This was the first thing we did to recapture his attention, luckily for my dignity I don't have to do anymore, and I use the timeout more often. But what was good about it is that it taught Yukon that I am very exciting, and to run to me to catch up even after he has been distracted.

4) Timeout.  If Yukon loses focus in class and doesn't want to play with me, that's ok.  He's telling me he needs a timeout.  I will then tether him and let him take a mental break while other people take a turn.  If I can, I will and go and get another dog to play with me (the instructor will usually "lend" me one of her dogs for this purpose -- April, do you have another one of your puppies you can bring to class to play with?).  This drives Yukon INSANE -- another dog is getting his cookies!!  After a couple of minutes, he is in focus overdrive and ready to work.  The idea is that if he’s not ready to work when I’m ready, he loses his turn.  I control when we work, he does not.  **Make sure that if you do a timeout, it is on a tether or in a crate -- somewhere boring.  You don’t want to “reward” her by letting her play with other dogs or sniff on her own.

Hopefully these ideas will get you started.  Hang in there!!

I like these a lot!

Thanks for posting this!  I've used most of them, or heard of them. I've been meaning to look at Karen's Relaxation Protocol. I have "Control Unleashed" and it's wonderful. There is even a Yahoo group where she answers questions.

I hadn't heard of the frustration tolerance. It looks interesting and I'll have to try it.

Another focus exercise I use is a basic "Look"!  I have my dogs look into my eyes and hold it until released. We are now to the point where I can have both dogs boring holes in my face with their eyes while I wave treats in slow circles around their heads. They know if they break eye contact to glance at the treat, it disappears. It's so funny and usually they can last longer than I can. I finally have to break down and give it to them. :D

Yes, thanks for posting!!  Those are great exercises!  For the spoon to teach heeling, I would add that any cookie delivered to encourage the dog to be in heel position should come straight down the seem of your pants...and nearly if not truly in contact with your pants.  They eliminates the temptation to bring the treat to the dog, rather than have the dog be correct to get the treat.  Otherwise you end up rewarding wide or forging as a heel position.

I will try to find my focus curriculum and add it to this. 

Interesting on the frustration tolerance.  Wonder how I can make that work for me when I get frustrated?  :D 

We would really like a video of you doiing the running around...come on, humor us!!?

Arctic Rose:
Thanks for posting this.  I have Control Unleashed and am reading it now.  I just purchased a book called In Focus and will see what kind of stuff that book has in it when it gets here.  I will check out the Relaxation Protocol hopefully tomorrow sometime.  Frustration Tolerance...interesting concept...may work on that one also.  Peanut butter spoon...Chloe doesn't care about peanut butter...tried that for teaching weaves.  Why would you need to teach healing for agility? 

As far as toys goes...Chloe doesn't really play with any specific toys for any length of time.  At one point I thought she had a favorite so I thought I would hold it back and try to get her to think I am awesome to play with by only letting her play with that toy when I wanted to play with it with her...well then she just found another toy to play with all the time instead.  Treats...Chloe eats them do I know which one is a "favorite"?

Handler focus during that already and it seemed to help at first...not so much now.  That is one reason I taught her "spin" b/c it seemed to get her really focused.  She will spin, sit, down, stay all of that between exercises fine.

Running around.....well I have ran around and tried to get her attention...but I guess I didn't make that kind of spectacle of myself...LOL

Timeout....we have started doing this whenever Chloe runs away.  She goes into a crate and I work one of my instructor's Vallhund's.  I haven't brought another dog to class b/c none of the other ones know anything about agility.  Chloe HATES it when I work another dog though.


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