Step 1: Teach the Concept
You might think you’ve done this. After all, you’re a caring dog owner interested in training, so you’ve probably taught your dog to make eye contact when cued. But this, Jane argued, is missing the point. As she put it, attention is like respect. If you have to ask for it, you’ll never get it. If you’re calling your dog, nagging him, or begging for attention, then he’s learned nothing… except maybe that he can disengage from you to do whatever he’d like because you’ll let him know when it’s time to pay attention.
What Jane wants is a dog who chooses to be attentive. To that end, the concept Jane encouraged us to teach is not cued eye contact, nor is it for the dog to ignore distractions when told. Instead, she said that true attention is achieved when the dog learns that distractions themselves are cues to focus on the handler. In other words, when the dog realizes there is something interesting out there, he should not only ignore it, but also make eye contact with his handler without being told to do so.
Jane starts teaching this by letting the dog know that eye contact is a behavior he can offer in order to receive a click and treat. She showed us how to do that by putting a dog on leash and simply waiting. When the dog would make eye contact, no matter how briefly, she would click and treat. She had each dog/handler team repeat this until it was clear the dog understood that he can make the click happen by offering eye contact.
With this foundation in place, Jane began to raise the criteria using the classic technique of introducing distractions. Jane had the handlers hold a fistful of treats out to the side. Most dogs will stare at the food when this happens, and our working dogs were no exception. Again, Jane just had the handlers wait. She cautioned that they should not call the dogs, make noises, or otherwise prompt them to make eye contact. Simply wait. When the dog looked, he would get a click and treat. Again, she had the teams repeat the exercise until it was clear the dog was offering attention as a behavior to earn the treats.
But remember, the concept is not simple eye contact; Jane’s goal was for the dogs to learn that those distractions are a cue for the dog to pay attention to the handler. Because of this, Jane does not want a dog to look away from the handler, check out the distraction, and then look back. Instead, she wants the dog to understand that as soon as he’s aware of the distraction, he should put his complete focus on his handler. So instead of making the distraction bigger or harder, Jane actually had the working teams raise the criteria by only clicking when the dog refused to look at the distraction.
Here’s how the exercise was set up: the handler would present a distraction (usually by holding a handful of treats out to the side), and the dog would be allowed to look at it, then look at his handler and earn a click/treat. The handler would then remove the distraction (by putting her behind her back, for example), and then present it again, which started the exercise over. After a few reps, the criteria would be raised. Now the dog would only get clicked if he maintained eye contact and ignored the distraction. The first few times, the dog would look at the distraction before looking back at his handler. However, now that the criteria had been raised, he would not get clicked for this. Every single dog soon realized that he shouldn’t look at the distraction at all, and thus would choose to keep looking at his handler, which earned him a click and treat. It was pretty awesome to watch.
Step Two: Work the Envelope
Once the dog learned the concept, Jane began to do what she calls “working the envelope.” This is the phrase Jane uses to describe the process of gradually making the training task more difficult. She would change one thing at a time, with the goal being that the change was large enough that the dog would notice, but not so large that he couldn’t quickly return his attention to his handler.
Tibby has figured out that when Jane moves towards her, she should look at her mom.
Again, she would allow a few reps of look-at-the-distraction-then-back-at-the-handler before requiring the dog to ignore the distraction entirely in order to get clicked. Each team worked with different levels of distraction. For more novice dogs, the handful of treats might simply be moved closer to his face, while more advanced dogs were required to ignore Jane while she stepped towards them or crinkled a treat bag.
Although she couldn’t demonstrate the entire evolution of the process due to time constraints, Jane did share that pretty much all training is just an expansion of the attention concept. What’s more, she stated that pretty much every problem you have with your dog’s performance is because he doesn’t understand the concept of attention. She even argued that teaching solid attention skills is at the core of working with reactivity or aggression. While I think attention skills are helpful, I know from my own experiences with Maisy that it's not a one-size-fits-all solution, and I have my doubts that what I saw would have worked.
But that is for another post. In the meantime, I'd love to hear from others. How have you taught attention skills? What do you think of Jane's method? Do you cue attention, or have you taught your dog to view the distraction itself as the cue?