The Importance of Training Your Reactive Dog to Focus
When I ask my clients what they most want for their reactive dog, they say one thing. They want their dog to ignore stuff.
Some of my clients have dog-reactive dogs. Their dogs bark and lunge at any dog they see. Some of them even struggle with dogs they can smell or hear. Others are more selective. They can be pretty choosy about who they decide to bark at.
Other clients have dogs who are reactive to strangers. Their dogs can also be pretty selective, only barking at certain individuals whereas others are generalists, barking at everyone. Some struggle with family members in the home.
And some of my clients have dogs who struggle with other stuff, from animals to moving objects. Sometimes they struggle with wildlife, livestock or other companion animals. Other times, they struggle with moving machinery, from lawnmowers and bicycles up to cars and vans.
No matter what the problem is, most of my clients aren’t regularly putting their dogs in jeopardy. Sure, it might be more helpful if they had a bit more distance or they didn’t try to do quite so much in one go. Sometimes, it would have been a lot quicker if they’d seen a trainer first. Instead of taking their dogs to places that overwhelmed them, it would have been helpful to take a more gradual approach. Even so, their dogs were never really in danger.
So where do we start?
When it helps to redirect our attention
To filter out life’s worries and bothers, you must be able to concentrate on other things.
This is also true of things that are truly exciting. Although it’s been a while since I was so excited I couldn’t concentrate on anything else, the same principles apply to the good stuff as they do to the bad. Emotionally arousing things make it hard to focus on anything else.
For instance, children may struggle to hold a focus on a Friday afternoon maths lesson if it starts snowing outside. Maths cannot compete with snow. Children need a lot of support and help to focus on the things they are supposed to do. It’s the same at Christmas. On Christmas Eve, children can really struggle to focus on anything other than Santa.
The same is true of the bad stuff. If you’ve got a niggling worry or concern, it can be hard to think of anything else. Having a large bill to pay is one example. Often, it’s hard to take our mind off it even though worrying about it does no good. Much research shows that anxious and depressed people focus on the bad stuff at the expense of the good stuff (e.g. Dalgleish et al., 2011; Dandeneau & Baldwin, 2004).
It’s especially important to be able to redirect our attention when we can’t get out of situations. For example, because I struggle with medical procedures but I have to undergo them from time to time, I take a book with me to occupy my mind. Sometimes I’ll take a friend to chat to.
It’s also important to be able to let others guide our attention if we are struggling. That’s a skill in itself!
Attentional focus for dogs
Just as we would support our children if they were struggling, we can do the same with our dogs.
Yesterday, I drove past a lady trying desperately to cling on to her collie as he barked and lunged at my car. She couldn’t get his attention although I could hear her calling him repeatedly. His attention was completely fixed on my car.
The easiest thing for her to have done was to have anticipated the car coming and made a small change to her environment before it was too late. There was a wall to the side of her that would have been easy to slip behind and restrict her dog’s view.
As you can see, the first three steps of the emotion resilience protocol for dogs would have really made a difference.
She could have been teaching him to u-turn and move with her.
She could have made a small change before the car arrived so that her dog did not have a complete meltdown. Going behind the wall would have meant she had a much better chance of being able to get her dog’s attention.
That’s our first step. It’s a step for us.
We need to be able to identify the point at which we should intervene before it is too late.
In many ways, this is as much an art as it is a science. It’s much easier to be overly precautious and intervene a few seconds too early than it is to leave things until it is too late. Learning when to intervene is a key skill for owners of reactive dogs.
We cannot miss out steps #1-3 in the roadmap to resilience. Our dogs need to have a strong history of being rewarded for letting us keep their focus.
How we keep their focus
First, we need to make sure we are working with rewards worth focusing on. If you’re trying to compete with a squirrel and you’re hoping your dog’s respect for you is enough reward, you might need some time with a trainer who uses reward-based methods.
We also need to keep the rewards varied. A child is more easily distracted from snow if we give them something rewarding to do. But… when they know exactly what is on the cards, they are likely to make decisions based on that. Art vs Snow might win sometimes, but there may be days when our children think snow is much more fun than art. When we keep it varied between things our children like, say drama, art and cooking, and we keep it predictably good, then we have a much better chance of keeping their focus on us. They don’t know exactly what to expect, only that it will be good.
Adding in surprising rewards can also help boost learning. Surprise is a vital element of fast learning.
Play can also really help. Play helps new neural connections form and concretise. It’s rocket fuel to the learning process.
This also makes it easier to phase out the intensity of rewards as our dogs get used to paying us attention. When our dog expects prime rib-eye steak every time we want to keep them busy, then we should necessarily expect frustration and disappointment when we try to phase it out.
Whether we are using food, toys, play or games, we should make sure it’s rewarding enough to compete with exciting events. The same is true for events that make our dogs feel fearful.
The first steps
We need first to build a history of ‘busy work’.
If the first time we ask our dogs to pay attention to us rather than focusing on another dog in the distance, we are asking them to mountain bike down Hellvelyn when they’ve not yet even learned to ride a bike. We’re not even at the stabilisers stage. We need to back it up. It is too hard.
Letting our attention rest elsewhere is a learned skill. And it is a skill. I use all kinds of methods to make sure I’m not distracted as I write this post, for example. I set short time periods so that I don’t ask too much of myself. Another thing I do is understand what is likely to distract me, like my phone. Then I set my phone to silent and leave it in another room.
I’ve learned skills about how to block out more stimulating distractions. You can also see why variety is useful: if I knew my phone pinging was simply another demand for my time, I’d be much happier to keep my focus. But because I don’t know what particularly salacious bit of news my phone might be alerting me to, I keep looking. Surprise and variety are marvellously addicting.
It’s the same with our dogs. We need to build up concentration and focus. We don’t ask children of five to concentrate in 3-hour exams as we do for undergraduates. Concentration is a muscle and it takes training to build it.
Many people make the mistake of not doing the legwork when it comes to building that muscle.
If we want our dogs to be able to focus on us so that we can keep their mind busy, then we need to teach them how to do that. We also need to make sure they can do it in all kinds of situations before we put it to the test.
We start by picking a few simple things our dog can do.
They need to be activities that happen close to us, like games of tug, or treats. There’s no point trying to use a game of fetch if we’re just going to accidentally throw the ball towards the people that our dog is afraid of. We obviously can’t use games that get our dogs to run if we’ve got them on the lead.
I like simple treat games or tug best. We need to build up the value of these in simple situations. To do that, we start in low distraction environments, like the home.
My favourite ‘busy work’ games are Deb Jones’ two-treat toss and Leslie McDevitt’s up-down game. The latter is a simple game where the dog just needs to lift their head up and down. It’s that easy. Maybe you don’t think that is something that should be rewarded. It’s so simple! If we are going to ask our dog to do something other than bark and lunge, we need to make sure it is simpler than what they were doing in the first place.
Both are games that can be played on the lead or off it. We can play these games in the home or garden. We can also begin to play them at the end of walks when all the fun is over.
Let’s face it: if we can’t get our dog to engage with us for a minute on our doorstep, how are we planning on getting them to engage with us when a very exciting car comes by or when our dog feels unsafe as a dog approaches?
If I want my dog to be able to give me their attention and let me keep hold of it when a deer bolts out of the forest meters from us, then I need to work solidly on that and nothing but that.
That starts in the home. Can my dog let me engage them for a minute in the home? Believe me when I say there are dogs I’ve known that couldn’t even manage this for a minute!
With the most distracted and fearful hound, we started right before his dinner bowl. It was the only time he paid attention to his owner. We simply played the Up-Down game with five high value treats. Within 24 hours, the dog was following his owner round the garden, completely focused on her. He didn’t know toys. He was a ten-year-old scenthound. His owner wanted him to stop barking at other dogs, but he had two modes: nose-down vacuuming up odours, or nose-up baying at other dogs he saw. Food was really the only thing we had to work with.
For another dog, he enjoyed his tug toy, but he never played when asked. He would always be the instigator. It took a bit of time to get him to start playing when others instigated it. From there, we then scaled it up so that he was playing in all kinds of places.
Let’s make no grand claims: we are simply trying to find ways to keep our dogs busy when things happen that they are not ready to cope with yet.
YET is the key word here.
They will be ready one day, but not yet.
But it’s a tough skill to let someone keep you busy when your mind is otherwise occupied. Perhaps you’ve struggled to pay attention to a film or movie, or a conversation even, if you had something worrying you. It’s the same for dogs. Allowing others to keep us busy is a habit we build.
Eventually, much later in the roadmap to resilience, we will build up to our dogs being able to find their own ‘busy work’ and learning to tune out distractions. Just as I’m tangentially aware of my neighbour’s sheltie barking right now and the tractor going past, there are times when I am so engrossed in what I am doing that I do not notice them.
It’s the same for dogs. Some dogs struggle to tune out other dogs barking, and the first step of their journey is learning to let their attention go somewhere else when that happens. After all, they can’t do it of their own volition, yet. If they can’t do it of their own volition, and they can’t do it when we ask, we need to make it easier for them by scaling back. Can they do it when the dogs aren’t barking outside? Can they do it reliably when there are other distractions?
If not, that’s our starting point: building a strong habit of giving our attention over to something rewarding.
The benefits of actively teaching a dog to focus on an activity
The benefits at first are relatively small. We can avoid meltdowns.
That in itself is reward enough for many guardians. I’d put money on the fact that the lady I drove past yesterday with her barking, lunging collie would be happy with that as a result. When we can see oncoming drama, we have the potential to use this to keep our dogs busy around us.
You can see that in this video here.
There was a row of horses going past at a canter. That was clearly very interesting for my dogs. Both of them were likely to run after the horses and bark. Had there been no fence, I am certain Lidy would have attacked the horses. Whether she is excited by being able to chase a prey species or she is fearful of them is moot in many ways: many horses are attacked by loose dogs and I know that this would be a predictable outcome.
It does not even matter that the horses are behind the fence: she would run along the fence line barking anyway. Although she would come to no harm, I do not let her practise this behaviour. Nor do I think it’s acceptable to those poor horses either. They do not deserve startling by two dogs.
All I have done is build a habit of getting them to focus on me under increasing challenge and allowing me to hold their attention. You can even see in the video that there were a couple of moments where both dogs looked like (and probably would!) have bombed off to bark and run along the fence. I start much simpler: can they eat? If they can’t do that then they are not ready to play games.
The tensions of keeping a dog’s focus
Keeping dogs busy is not simple distraction.
As you can see from the video, both of my dogs were very aware that there were horses riding past. I am simply supporting them because right at that moment, they are fighting between two behaviours: do they run off and chase the horses, or do they stay with me for what are very poor quality rewards?
At other times, I will happily and fully distract the dog. The collie from yesterday was not as far along as my two dogs here and he was not ready to cope with seeing the car. If I suspect that I cannot keep the dog’s focus on me, then I will move to complete distraction.
This is one reason I call this ‘busy work’ as you see in the video. It is not distraction so that they are not processing what is happening. They are fully aware there are horses riding past. They are simply letting me keep them busy. The collie from yesterday was not ready to be kept busy.
This brings us to two tensions. The first is that when completely distracted, the dog is barely processing at all. Like all other management techniques such as choosing situations selectively or adapting the situation we are in, it is not equipping the dog with the skills they need to manage when the going gets tough. Actually, you can see in the video that I have adapted the situation a bit, by moving further away from the fence with my dogs. I could have also put them back on the lead.
The second tension is that being able to keep your dog’s attention doesn’t happen overnight. It is a muscle that you are increasing over time, not an on-off switch.
Being able to keep our dog’s attention on us under pressure is a foundation skill that helps us make their life easier.
When we use it alongside the first three steps in the roadmap to resilience, we can live peaceful lives.
We also start to make the bridge to more complex skills. Although it does not mean that our dogs are really reprocessing the world or learning to think differently about it, it does mean that we can live without too much chaos. Of course, it relies on us to be vigilant and to manage our dogs’ lives, so it’s often much more useful to train to success.
Once we have decided what we’d prefer our dogs to do and we’ve taught them the skills they need, we can adapt the environment in simple ways to help them further. There is no shame in keeping dogs busy when you can see that they would struggle otherwise. I’m sure that you can tell from the video that my dogs would have run off up the field after the horses had I not taken the lead. They rely on my support to make good decisions, and although there are many times when they would make the very best decision to leave other animals in peace, they sometimes need support to make that choice.
For further information…
You can check out this video post on impulsive and predatory behaviour in dogs
The Lighten Up frustrated greeters course features support for keeping your dogs engaged and busy around distractions as they learn to manage their behaviour. It is suitable for all kinds of frustration-based or impulsive behaviour around dogs, people and animals, as well as moving machinery.
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