Butterfly minds and focus in dogs
When we think of impulse control in dogs, many of us will think of the behavioural choices our dogs will make. We think of those ‘big’ behaviours. Perhaps they are quick off the mark. Maybe they react with more intensity than is required in the situation.
Impulse control also relates to attentional processes too. We have selected for dogs who are able to persist in focusing on a goal. A collie would be useless if, half-way up a hill-side, they decided to go for a dip rather than collect sheep, for example. We want dogs who can keep their mind on the job.
You can see why this would be very helpful. It enables us to work with dogs who can keep their focus on a task like detection work. This involves a lot of executive function and working memory as well as being able to ignore distractions.
Ignoring distractions is a behaviour rooted in attentional focus. It’s also a spectrum. At one end, we have dogs who fixate on novelty and new sensations, easily distracted by any environmental changes and overwhelmed by their senses. At the other, we have dogs who so compulsively focus on a goal that they struggle to rest.
Understanding these factors and knowing how to support our dogs who are struggling is important
Hyperfocus in dogs is a useful skill that can be exploited by humans. All kinds of dogs who do tasks for us need some kind of focus on that activity. This may be goal-directed behaviour, such as leading a person who is blind along a road. It may also be behaviours such as staying with the flock. Livestock guardian breeds would be little use if they were distracted by every novelty in the environment or they sought sensation constantly.
Many dog breeds who have been selected for utility have an exceptional ability to focus. These are the dogs we often find working in military or police roles, or working as assistance dogs, gundogs or shepherd’s dogs. Being able to work for an hour and focus on identifying suitcases which contain large sums of cash or small amounts of drugs involves two key skills. The first is the ability to focus on one activity. The second is the ability to ignore distractions.
It is no surprise that many of these dogs are ones we think of as highly motivated with ‘high drive’. Tenacity, perseverance and persistence in dogs are useful skills to humans. It is also little surprise that with less than thoughtful breeding, some breeds can exhibit compulsive goal-driven behaviour particularly when anxious, aroused or distressed. Behaviours like snapping at invisible flies, chasing lights or shadows, spinning or tail-chasing are other behaviours where attentional focus plays a role.
Novelty and sensation seeking
Many of our working dog breeds are also highly interested in novelty. It is important to have a good understanding of your environment. Approach behaviours are also important. A detection dog would be unhelpful if they were frightened by things they had never encountered before. If they could only work in safe spaces, they would struggle with many activities.
For that reason, confidence and approach behaviours are also part and parcel of the behaviours that have historically had value for humans. If you have a dog who’d notice the one thing that is different on your walk simply because it wasne’t there yesterday, you may find that they are highly interested in change and novelty.
Novelty and change is also important to anxious dogs. Watch wolf behaviour around changes in their territory and you may see some hesitation, but curiosity too. Being able to identify potential threat is a helpful skill. It’s amazing how many animals will identify a new trail camera for instance. Many, however, will not approach for a better look.
Better safe than sorry.
For our dogs, this is often very different. When we have dogs who are very sensitive to the environment, who notice changes instantly and who are curious to approach, these can mean they struggle to work around distraction.
When we think about impulsivity in our dogs, we should also consider their attentional skills. We may find that our dogs tend to hyperfixate on goals, especially if they are very sensitive to rewards. This is a useful blend for working dogs: the cadaver dog who will keep working for one tug toy, for example, is a very helpful dog indeed.
On the other hand, we may find that if they are too environmentally sensitive or keen on novelty, they struggle to focus on tasks. Trying to do mantrailing or scentwork with dogs like this can be very challenging because they lack the attentional stamina to focus on one single task and pursue it. The whole world is very distracting and they struggle to manage their arousal levels in new environments.
If you notice your dog takes a long time to get used to new places or new walks, or if they tend to vacuum up scent, moving from one scent to another to another at a rapid pace, you may find they struggle with sensory over-arousal.
This is also an attentional process. Our senses are always busy humming in the background until something salient occurs. Then our other senses will quieten so that we can gain more information.
Understanding salience is important.
Salience and attention
Not all things in the world are created equal. Some things are more important.
Think of your dog on their daily walk. There are probably hundreds of things they ignore, even if they are very sensitive to the environment. There will be smells they decide not to investigate, sights they ignore or sounds they simply don’t hear.
A very good clue that we’ve got a dog who may struggle sometimes with attentional processes is if we find ourselves thinking they’ve got selective deafness. What we mean in that case is that our dog simply doesn’t seem to hear our calls or that they may even make a decision to ignore them. This isn’t always about poor reward rates. Nor is it always about the fact the world is more interesting.
Being able to stop paying attention to one stimulus and actively pay attention to another is a tough skill.
It can also cause a lot of internal conflict for our dogs. This in turn can be frustrating.
Salience also depends on our needs at the time. If you are very thirsty, then you may actively pay attention to places where you could get a drink. If your car is low on petrol, you may actively start looking for garages.
The value of the world around us depends on our needs in the moment. It can also depend on long-term preferences and pleasures as well as long-term fears.
Working around distractions
It can be very useful to work with our dogs in helping them build up the skills and attentional muscles for optimal focus.
Optimal focus involves ‘Goldilocks’ levels of attention. This means not so much attention that you cannot be distracted or called away, but not so little attention that you cannot focus for more than a millisecond.
Many dog trainers with working dogs focus on three skills: focus on the human, ignoring distractions on the world around the dog, and managing arousal levels.
Focus on the human depends very much on the task. A herding dog will need to be mindful of the cues given by their human. They cannot become so engrossed in collecting animals that they cannot stop. They also need to be sensitive to human gestures and vocal cues. It’s not much of a surprise that these dogs are often the ones who learn many different vocal commands or excel in activities with their human partner.
A second strand of support for many working dogs is in learning to ignore distractions. An assistance dog would be very unhelpful if they dragged a person across a busy road because they’d seen a child drop an icecream. Much work with assistance dogs involves learning to complete a task despite distractions.
Thirdly, highly responsive dogs will also need to be able to manage their arousal levels. Without this, they may struggle to prioritise where their attention goes. And, where their attention goes, the rest of their body will follow.
One of my favourite jokes is from a man who lives in an earthquake zone. He says that he keeps ‘quake bacon’ in his pocket so that search and rescue dogs will come to him first. Should there be an earthquake, he thought he would be able to incentivise the search dogs to look for him first.
In reality, quake bacon should not be a factor in how a search & rescue dog prioritises finding people trapped in earthquakes.
This joke raises several important points about attentional focus for working dogs. We have often required our highly responsive dog breeds to prioritise our goals over their own needs. Handing over retrieved birds, ignoring quake bacon and not taking a bite out of a live sheep require a lot of attentional and behavioural inhibition.
In many ways, such dogs will depend on us for support and guidance. Paying attention to things, ignoring other things and managing arousal levels so that they don’t end up struggling with the first two skills is a big call for an animal. If one thing differentiates humans from other animals, it is that we can inhibit our immediate goals for long-term processes. We can even inhibit our own self-centred goals to prioritise the needs of the group.
Although dogs excel in these skills too, they simply don’t have the hardware or the enculturation that humans do. Support for steadiness, arousal levels and inhibition is important. This is not simply about behaviour in general, but specifically in relation to where their attention goes.
Arousal and anxiety
Anxiety is another factor that can influence what our dogs pay attention to. You may have noticed that your highly responsive dog finds it very hard NOT to pay attention to things that scare them.
This scene will be familiar if you have such a dog… they are scanning the environment for threat, often unable to engage with the world at all. You’d like to do sniffy walks but your dog rarely dips their nose to the floor in the first place. Then, when their expectations are confirmed – there is a dog! – they are unable to take their attention away from the offending individual.
You may offer plenty of prompts or cues, even pulling your dog away or trying to call them, yet they are rooted to the spot, barking and lunging. Anxiety can also involve attentional processes, particularly for highly sensitive individuals. You will no doubt know this if you have ever struggled with anxiety yourself. It can be very hard to stop dwelling on things that worry you, even when you know they are highly unlikely to occur.
Anxiety also affects the salience of stimuli in the world around us. Our dogs may become hypervigilant, scanning the horizon for threat and then unable to disengage their attention if actual threats materialise even if they are very far away.
For many reasons, if our dogs are sensitive to the environment, if they are highly responsive to the world or if they are struggling with anxiety, we may need to support our dogs in learning how to disengage and how to move on.
Knowing what to pay attention to and how to disengage can be tough for our dogs. If our dogs are highly motivated by rewards or access to particular behaviours, they can be sensitive to the cues that predict those things. If our dogs are anxious, they can be extremely vigilant to threat.
Knowing how to help our dogs is crucial.
Focus games can offer a lot of support. Helping our dogs learn how to settle can also be important. It is not a failure to understand that our dogs may need a little more support for these processes. Finding the optimal levels of focus is tough for a dog. It’s one area where we can really help our dogs.
This is a core skill covered in the Lighten Up Resilience Roadmap. You can download that for free here.
You can also read more about disengagement here.