The One Easy Secret for Getting Your Dog to Focus on You

By Deborah Jones, Ph.D.

With a title like that my guess is that most dog trainers are still reading.  Even though your logical brain tells you there is no single easy secret you’re still hopeful, right?  Maybe I’ve been holding out on this one little crucial detail for all these years and now I’ve finally decided to let the cat out of the bag.  But you know that isn’t how dog training works.  

That being said, if there was only one thing I could tell people about focus training it would be this “you can’t expect what you haven’t trained”.  Instead of saying “my dog doesn’t focus on me” it would be more accurate to say “I haven’t taught my dog to focus on me yet”.  So the easy secret is “teach focus”.  Actually, that’s a lie.  It’s not easy and it’s not a secret.

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How do you teach focus?  Like any other desired skill, training proceeds step by step, starting easy and adding challenge as you go along.  The first roadblock to teaching focus is that focus is a concept rather than a behavior.  Concepts are tricky slippery things.  Focus is really a wide range of ideas, knowledge, and skills.  It’s multifaceted, which makes it more complicated to teach.  I’ve spent 15 years thinking about and expanding on the topic of focus training for the animals we work with.  And I’m still learning new things all the time, which means I’m constantly tweaking and adjusting exercises.  However, I feel like I’ve developed a fairly comprehensive program for teaching a basic strong focus foundation.

Each individual exercise we teach moves us closer to our goal of a focused enthusiastic training partner.  We start by showing our dogs that we are willing to be generous and provide valuable reinforcers to them.  Then we begin capturing their offered focus and highly reinforcing it.  As we move along we begin to combine known behaviors with the focus we are developing.  And then we add more challenges in terms of distance, duration, and distraction.  It’s a step by step building block process.  We nurture and strengthen focus in many small steps over time.  

Here’s a sample exercise from our Get Focused! online class at Fenzi Dog Sports Academy.  At this point in the process I am working with Smudge on teaching him that focus pays off even when I clearly have no classic reinforcers on me.

I say all the time that training without focus is so much harder than it has to be.  Focus training is a way to get “buy in” from our dogs and make them active and eager partners in the process.  Once you have focus teaching everything else is going to be so much easier.  Do yourself, and your dog a favor, and spend some time focusing on teaching focus.  You’ll both be happier!

Our next Get Focused! class begins February 1.  Come join us as we present our entire focus training system, step by step, and give comprehensive personal feedback to our working teams.  Take a look at our course description, syllabus, and sample lecture (with videos) here.