Training For Attention. Part I.

Originally appeared in the July 1995 ESAA Newsletter

As I mentioned last time, the basics of success in the obedience ring are the 3 A's -- ATTENTION, ATTITUDE, ACCURACY. Let's take a look at attention. When I started training dogs, teaching attention as a distinct skill was not stressed. Rather, we expected the dog to learn to pay attention by osmosis -- yes, we corrected dogs for not paying attention without really teaching them how to be successful at it. Over the last decade or so, more effort has been put into teaching dogs to pay attention.

One method that many trainers incorporate into their beginning training is what I like to call the "static attention exercise." In this exercise, the dog is taught to watch the handler while sitting in the heel position. A lure such as food is held above the dog's eye-level in such a way as to position the dog's head to look upward at the handler. In the early stages, the holding of the desired head position is shaped by continual feeding. As the dog begins to understand that treats are only dispensed when the head is in the appropriate position, feeding becomes more sporatic. Eventually, the food is moved from the hand, typically, to the mouth. When the dog consistently maintains the attention position with the food being dispensed randomly from the mouth, distractions are introduced. If the dog's head leaves the attention position in the presence of a distraction, a collar correction is used to break the dog's concentration on the distraction followed by a reward when the attention position is again attained. With persistence, the desired attention head position can be programmed into the dog over about a 5-8 week period. This method does produce a dog who can sit in heel position staring at your face for long periods of time. I used this method during the early phases of Bandit's training, and as a result, he can sit in heel position for many minutes staring at me regardless of the distractions -- it makes for an impressive demonstration! However, I have found, that although the dog looks like he is paying attention, over time, the mind tends to lose focus. Fortunately, during an obedience routine, it is rare for a dog need to sit in heel position for extended periods of time. I find that this method can be useful for getting the dog's attention before the beginning of an exercise. Bandit looks up at me on the command of "ready" and is prepared to carry out another command.

I think that this static method of teaching attention has some inherent disadvantages for training English Setters. First, holding static attention for extended periods of time is very boring. For English Setters, anything that bores them will probably have a negative effect on attitude and motivation. Unless you are more exciting than what is going on in the environment, the dog is going to be distracted. Once the dog is distracted, you have to give a correction which may depress the dog further. For many English Setters, this whole process may turn off the dog from enjoying obedience work. A second consideration is that holding the head up while in a sitting position is very different for the dog than holding the head up while in motion. Few dogs run or walk with their heads pointed up and turned away from center -- most intelligent dogs want to see where they are going! In other words, the style that many of us want in heeling, is completely unnatural for the dog. As the dog stands to begin movement, the head naturally tends to drop. A collar correction at this point, might be confusing for the dog because he will probably not be able to understand which of its body movements was incorrect. This problem can be worked out by putting the food back into the left hand, as in the initial attention training, and practicing going only one step followed by a release. After the dog has learned to keep the head up when starting off, he can be conditioned to walk with the head up.

If you are using some method that is similar to that described above, don't think that I'm implying that it's bad training. To the contrary, it is a method that can be successful as long as you are very careful not to dampen the dog's enthusiasm. Next month, I will describe another method that we are using in my basic competitive obedience class that teaches attention in a dynamic fashion. The current class contains two Rhodesian Ridgebacks who are handled by first time trainers; both are active lurecoursers and easily distracted when bored. These dogs began their obedience training in traditional obedience class environments and were showing a lack of enthusiasm at the start of the class. Within three weeks, both of these dogs were heeling with a surprising amount of drive, attention and animation.

I didn't realize when I took over this column, that some of you were unaware that, not long after retiring from the column,Winnie Hanson passed away. For many years, Winnie advocated obedience training English Setters using sensitive, caring methods in her columns. Since we both lived in the Pacific Northwest, I would occasionally run into Winnie at shows, and she was always supportive of those of us showing our setters in obedience. I would like to extend condolences to her family from all of us in the obedience community. We have appreciated her contributions.

The national is now only a few weeks away, and I hope that those of you who will be attending will consider entering your dogs in the obedience competition. If you don't have a dog to enter, please come by and support the competition. See you all in Michigan!

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Last Modified December 22, 1998