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— January 29, 2013 —

Focus and Recall.
A brief explanation of how those dogs learn to be so darned attentive.
by Patience Hayes

Like most dog trainers, I typically start my new obedience clients off with “Recall and Focus” exercises, which incorporates focus work into the basic “Come and Sit”. By now, you’ve guessed that the “recall” refers to the “come & sit” part, but you might be asking yourself, “What’s she mean by ‘focus’, and why should I care?” Well, just as we trainers are fond of telling you that “come” is the life‐saving command, focus may also serve you well in the future, so we set the groundwork for focus early in the game.

If you’re already in my program, you know that when you call your dog to come, you have your dog come in very close to you, sit, and look up into your eyes. This is “focus” work, and it is altogether a different thing from your dog, coming, sitting, and looking around at, well, ya’ know, whatever he feels like looking at, which is exactly what he would be doing, if you let him! Picture your dog sitting at your feet and looking all around, thinking dog‐thoughts, seeing some squirrels…… “WHAT?!! SQUIRRRRRRRRRRRRRL!!!!!!!”, as he takes off, full speed toward the street……

O.K., O.K., so that example might be a little extreme, but you catch my drift. For our purposes, in basic obedience, that focus — that paying attention to YOU, instead of distractions — is, at the very least, helping your dog stay engaged with you. Here’s another scenario: You’re doing “recall and focus” training in your kitchen, the cat slinks in and starts to sniff around your dog’s food bowl, your dog wants to go after kitty, and the next thing you know, he’s up and off and you’re feeling a bit like an ineffective goof. You get frustrated and perhaps think that your dog is willful, dense, incorrigible, or just a big jerk…! Or, maybe you think that there’s some magic trick that the blasted trainer has that you don’t. Nope! It’s just a little understanding of “Doggiedom”. If you don’t ask for that focus and make it rewarding for the dog, you may never get it when you want it — or more importantly, when you NEED it!

If you’ve ever watched an obedience trial and seen a dog focusing on his handler, it might look like a case of an extraordinarily devoted dog. You might, then, take a glance at your dog on the sofa, drooling and snoring, and think to yourself that there’s no way you could ever have a special dog like the ones you’re seeing on TV. Maybe you just have a “regular old” dog or that you lack the special magic to get your dog to be that engaged with you. What if I told you that it’s not magic? …… that you, too, can have an obedient dog who looks up at you like you hung the moon?! It’s simple! You can start, today! I’ll break it down in the paragraph, below. Read on!

In most cases, the easiest way to start incorporating “focus” into your basic obedience training, is to use a lure — in this case, a treat. As your dog comes into his sit, directly in front of you, bring that treat right up beside your cheekbone or your eye — anywhere close to your face. Your dog will be looking right at you. (“Treat, treat, treat!!!!! Right up there is a TREEEEEEEEAT!!!!!!!!!” Yup! A treat!!!!)

Most trainers start with a “Look” or “Watch me” command. We generally integrate that into the basic, “Sit” command. Keep that sit/focus as long as you can. (For our purposes, here, focus, “Watch me” is included in the "sit"command.) If your dog looks away, redirect him: "No, sit!" He should turn his gaze back up to you. IMMEDIATELY praise that: "Good sit!!" You can also reming him to “Watch me” if necessary. Soon enough, you won’t have to add that additional command. Your very smart dog will integrate the two.

Keep the gaze with the treats and praise for a good 20-30 seconds. Never mind that you are using a lure to get him to perform; you are establishing a good habit with praise — “Good sit!” — and treats. “Fido” or “Fionna” will get into the habit, and, in no time, you can phase out the lure. Meanwhile, you are deepening the bond with your dog, as well as starting a good habit of your dog paying attention to YOU. Now, you are on your way! When distractions happen — and they will — “Buddy” or “Bella” will certainly be interested in them, but, as you work to deepen and intensify your dog’s focus upon you, your pup will be much more inclined to be tuning into your next command! Good Luck and Happy Training!

Visit DoggieManners with Patience on Facebook! Contact Patience at (312) 720-9561 or email her at doggiemannerswithpatience@yahoo.com.