In the dog training community, a great deal of effort goes into teaching dogs “attention.” But what does that mean? Staring into the handler’s eyes? Moving in an abnormal position gazing at a toy? Ignoring all distractions? Maintaining focus? Working for hours on end? Be willing to eat all the chicken and cheese we dole out? Is a dog’s attention span based on his age, sex, or breed?
However we may define it, here’s the reality: We can get frustrated and confused when a dog doesn’t (can’t?) focus, or won’t give us his attention no matter how much we know or how good our timing may be. We’re smart trainers, so we know it’s not dominance or being stubborn or blowing us off but sometimes, we’re left scratching our own heads and asking, “What’s really going on in that dog’s head?”
Let’s take a deep dive into Attention, which is an awfully big, vague label for many complex interactions and networks in the mammalian brain. At any given moment, a dog’s brain (like yours!) is juggling:
- different types of attention
- alertness and arousal
- sensory sensitivities and deficits
- internal and external factors
- focus and distractions
- individual attention span
Understanding what’s at work in that canine brain (and your own, and your clients!) helps you make good choices for the dogs in our hands. We’ll look at:
- the 4 main functions of conscious attention
- cognitive resources – expending a limited commodity
- how expectations and salience affect attention
- what captures attention?
- temperament and sensory awareness
- to Carnegie Hall and beyond (the value of practice)
When you are clear what factors may be at work with any individual dog, it becomes easier to select appropriate techniques, use thinner slices, shift your expectations or simply help the handler see what the dog is saying and doing.
Armed with an understanding of the anatomy of attention and the individual dog, we can align our goals and expectations with who that dog truly is. When we know how to engage the astonishing power of intrinsic motivation, we can —– SQUIRREL! (Just kidding…unless you are really into squirrels?) — make the most of every dog’s capacity for attention.