Writing in REMEMBERING TO BREATHE: Inside Dog Obedience Competition (chapter 8), I said that the three most important elements in successful competition obedience training are attention, attention and attention.
That book was published in December 2003 and was the culmination of two years of writing, rewriting and more rewriting. So I probably wrote those words nearly a decade ago. At the time, referring to the role of attention in competition obedience training, I called myself a believer, an evangelist. But I know now that I had seen only the tip of the iceberg. It has taken me the ensuing decade to plumb the depths of what attention and focus can mean to success in the obedience ring. And I'm certain there's more to come. Some would call it attaining enlightenment. But I don't think it's that deep. It's about getting it. And so many in our midst never do.
It's about believing in and religiously adhering to a few simple truths.
For instance, the first competition obedience instructor I had, Debby Boehm, asked me, "Willard, if your dog isn't watching you, how can you expect her to know what you want her to do?" Later she pointed out that, "It's physically impossible for your dog to sniff if she's watching you." What could be more fundamentally sound than that? Simple truths about attention that propelled me along my journey toward dry-behind-the- earsness.
On the other hand, how often do you see this in the ring? The handler is heeling along -- no, lurching along -- while the dog is all over the ring, sniffing, gawking, wandering around. Not connected with the handler in any way that would allow the poor, confused animal to have a clue as to why he's out there or what's expected. I know people who have been in the sport 30 years and they've never gotten it. Either attention has never been part of their training or they've chosen to ignore it. Thirty years, a series of dogs, same unsolved problems every time.
Occasionally one of these people who has had one year of experience 30 times will utter a sentence that includes the words "my students." I cringe. I want to say, "You teach? With what?" But I don't.
Moving right along . . . Today I differentiate between attention and focus.
Attention is a more generalized activity. (And it is active.) I want my dog connected mentally, watching me (and not with glazed eyes), tuned in, alert to what I'm going to expect next.
Focus is more intense, more "pinpointed." A step up from generalized attention on the seeking-perfection continuum. Think of it this way: Focus is attention on steroids. And it has physical connotations as far as the working dog's posture is concerned.
At the time I wrote REMEMBERING TO BREATHE, the concept focus was not on my mind. The first time I heard it used in a specialized way in relation to competition obedience training was during a conversation with Helen Phillips. She was talking about problems dealing with teaching one of her border collies perfect heel position. Helen referred to his "focal point." I listened but I was clueless as to what she was talking about. Then she went on to say she was having trouble teaching him correct head position. (I knew that dog. He heeled with his head straight up, as if he was looking at the sky. I used to refer to him as "The Weather Man.)
Although I didn't understand, anything Helen said raised my antenna. It all came together much later when I saw Louise Meredith practicing heeling with an armband that had a little stick protruding. That little stick held a treat -- the dog's focal point as he heeled. That target helped him form the habit of perfect head position in perfect heel position.
Although I learned this from Louise, the technique originated with AnneMarie Silverton. Appropriately, she called it "pinpoint heeling."
My God, I've just referred to Louise Meredith, Helen Phillips and AnneMarie Silverton -- three of the giants in our sport. How could you not hunger to assimilate anything they had to offer?
After I had watched Louise a few times, I blundered into the classic mistake. I asked her where I could get the armband/stick device (sometimes called a "heeling helper" or an "attention stick"). I saw it as just the thing to fix my chronically forging border collie Bebop.
I received the item, put it on and away we went . . . to nowhere. It didn't work. And the reason it didn't work, as I eventually learned, was that pinpoint heeling is a process, not a Band-Aid. A many-months process -- one that's best started on day one of training if it's to be done right. When I had observed Louise heeling her dogs the day before shows with the treat on the stick, it was the final step in a multi-step process. (I've explained the process in detail in chapter 17 of OTCH DREAMS: The Agony and the Ecstasy of Life with Competition Obedience Dogs.)
To summarize: The goal of this process is to get your dog to focus on your armband as you heel. The armband becomes a training aid, the only training aid you are permitted to take into the ring with you.
I've devoted a lot of space here to focus as it applies to heeling That's because isolating the heeling process offers a great way to highlight the application of narrowly focused attention. But focus -- sharpened, narrowed down, intensive attention -- is important in so many other ways in competition obedience.
You're giving the signals in Utility. At the very instant you give a signal, Rover shoots a glance at something outside the ring, misses the signal and you flunk.
Muffy sleepwalks through the scent discrimination exercise and randomly grabs an article. It's a long ride home.
As you pivot for glove two, Max is window-shopping instead of looking at you. He diverts to glove one. Oh well, tomorrow's another day.
As Fluffy saunters toward you on the drop on recall, she's intent on sniffing the ground. She doesn't drop. "@#!*&$*#*!"
A final analogy. It's a sunny day. Take a sheet of paper and a magnifying glass out into the backyard. The sun is everywhere. Now hold the magnifying glass so as to focus the sun's rays on a small spot in the center of the paper. Soon the paper will burst into flames. That's how focus can help Fido's performance in the competition obedience ring.