Many years ago, I remember overhearing a conversation between two of my agility friends. I was volunteering at a tournament of fun matches and had the opportunity to watch beginner agility dogs make their début. The handler, let’s call her Marie, was a seasoned one, but the dog, a border terrier I believe, was a newbie. According to my friends, it seems that Marie’s previous agility partner had no focus, and she had promised herself her next dog would. As we’re watching her, her little dog was so focused on her, it kept going around, and around in tight little circles by her side. At that time, Jasmine was still zooming around in large circles at my slightest handling mistake. Not knowing any better, I was thinking, wow, I would love Jasmine to do that. Little did I know that too much focus can bring its own set of problems. What I wasn’t understanding, was that the little dog wasn’t really running the course, nor was he responding to his handler’s signals. It was simply running beside her, and noticing the next obstacle only when it was right in front of it. Not much of a problem in simple novice courses, but not an ideal situation in Gambler or snooker courses in advanced and masters events.
Can focus can be too much of a good thing?
No, totally not! It’s up to us, as handlers, to manage it and train the dog accordingly. Little Fannie is my focus dog. Her attention is totally on me, to an extent where it can become a liability. As I was training Jasmine in weaves, I really tried to follow the instructor’s directions. It shows by Jasmine’s ability to concentrate on completing the weaves, and rarely popping out. However, my true nature blossomed (teehee!) in Fannie’s training, and my tendency of cutting corners is showing. As Fannie weaves, her head swivels constantly to me so she can watch what my next handling command will be. Although I can’t complain for having a dog with focus, I can see that it can become a problem in the future if not corrected right away. This “watching you” habit can be explained by either Fannie not knowing what her line is yet, and/or I didn’t establish the right reinforcement zone. Why didn’t I, you ask? I knew the drill, so what stopped me?
Fannie’s over-stimulation to any toy is what stopped me. I could have used a ball or frisbee to reward Fannie during her weaves training right away. Unfortunately, she was so excited when I would take out a toy, there was no way she would concentrate on the job at hand. Instead, I used food, and she was asked to obtain in by eating it out of my hand. My bad. Can you see now how she was actually trained to look at me for her reward? Result: Dog doing weaves perfectly, but must glance at handler at almost every pole to make sure the reward isn’t in said handler’s hand.
Mission: Do enough weaves’ training and using a toy as a reward in the “right” reinforcement zone. Very doable.
A training mistake such as this one with Fannie can easily be corrected. With Jasmine? Oh boy! It would have been disastrous. I’ll have to learn to not to listen to my impatient side. There is a reason for everything in agility training, especially focus and reinforcement zones…. (blush, blush) : D