The Many Faces of Focus

A past discussion with my fellow FDSA instructors led me to explore the topic of focus for this week's blog post (thanks Shade for bringing up this topic). And thanks to all the instructors who joined the discussion. I've written about focus quite a bit, but somehow I always find more to say. Focus is a multi-faceted concept and the more I explore it the more I find to explore even further. This particular discussion had to do with defining focus and distinguishing focus from engagement. Denise Fenzi and I wrote about this in our last book "Dog Sport Skills: Focus & Engage!" It's a common question and I have some thoughts on all of this. Of course I do!

To start, let me provide a working definition of focus. Merriam Webster's definition, which I really like, defines focus as "a point of concentration". When we think about a dog's focus the question should be "focus on what?" I have identified four major subtypes of focus and will briefly expand on each.

Handler Focus

This is the one that everyone thinks about when they think of focus. Your dog is gazing at you with intense unwavering interest. You remain the center of his attention for as long as you want or need. In order to become the object of this type of focus the handler needs to make herself important and interesting and useful to the dog. Focus doesn't come for free! We put in a lot of early foundation work making focus on the handler valuable for the dog.

There are times in training when handler focus is very helpful, and times when it can actually get in the way and become problematic. Too much handler focus happens at the expense of other types of focus that might be necessary or useful at any given time. It's a good starting point; but not the be all and end all of focus work.

Task Focus

In this type of focus the dog's main point of attention is in what he is doing either mentally, physically, or both. A task can be any number of possible activities. It might be a stay, weave poles, searching for an odor or scent, jumping, and so on. We teach our dogs how to perform these tasks and, in order to perform well, they need to put their full focus and concentration into them.

Concentrating on a task means that you must ignore other things happening in the environment in order to perform correctly. This ability to have pinpoint unwavering focus is one that can be encouraged and nurtured over time. It is typically a mixture of fluency with the task and feelings of comfort and confidence in the environment. As trainers, we can work to develop these. 

Environmental Focus

We often think of focus on stimuli in the environment as a bad thing. We typically call those distractions and want our dogs to ignore them in favor of handler or task focus. This is easier for some dogs than for others. The nature of the external stimuli matters quite a bit.

In general, hounds are going to be easily distracted by scents and bird dogs easily distracted by movement in the distance. These are part of their genetic make-up. If we want to try to override that programming then we have some serious work to do.

Stimuli can be interesting or they can be perceived as threatening (whether they really are or not). Recognizing the difference is very important to how you work through undesired environmental focus. We can use acclimation to satisfy interest but would need desensitization to work through perceived threat. These are very different processes and knowing which one to use, and how to use it effectively, will determine your level of success.

Internal Focus

This type of focus is on how the dog feels, either physically, emotionally, or both. If you've ever been sick you know that it can become difficult to think about anything else. This is often complicated in dogs because they tend to hide or mask illness or injury.

The same problem is true for being anxious or nervous. Those internal states can easily become your total focus. A dog who is having "big feelings" will find it really difficult to move his focus to training or performing. In order to help this dog, we need to help him regulate his emotions and feel comfortable in the environment. This is a big job, but a necessary one if we expect handler or task focus to be possible. 

Switching Focus

Being able to quickly and seamlessly switch from one type of focus to another is a skill that requires practice to master. Once we have worked on developing strong handler and task focus; and taught our dogs how to manage external and internal focus challenges, then we can consider ways to smoothly toggle between them.

A sport like agility requires fast focus changes. There is handler focus in listening to and following cues, but many of the skills are task focus based. It would be tempting to say you need to be able to focus on both the handler and the task at the same time, but this would not be totally correct. Many scientists would tell you that multitasking (doing two things at the exact same time) is not really possible. You might do one thing well and the other quite poorly. Instead of thinking of it as multitasking, think of it as serial tasking. When conditions are right, we can develop the ability to switch back and forth quickly and easily. This is definitely a skill that can be learned and practiced.

Engagement

According to Merriam Webster one definition of engagement is "involved in activity". This definition seems to apply quite well to our concept of mutual interaction between the dog and trainer. When both parties are fully immersed in a shared activity that is engagement. You engage WITH someone else, it's not a solitary activity. I like to think of focus as a foundation that makes engagement much easier to attain. If you can focus then you have set the stage for engagement.

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