Using a ‘Focus Point’ to Teach Duration

Hands up — who has trouble teaching the concept of duration to their dogs? 

Maybe all your other dogs have just gotten it, but now you have one who, well, just doesn't. It can be tricky, especially with sensitive dogs who tend to shut down at the mere hint of a 'missed click.' You know the ones; they can offer you a nose touch multiple times, but each is so fast you struggle to time your marker to when the dog is actually touching your target. And if you are able to time that click just right, heaven help you if you delay it for a split second – your dog will interpret that as a 'mistake' and will be too traumatized to train again for a week.

Or the hyper motivated ones: they can respond to your down cue super-fast, but they appear to have rubber elbows – as soon as they touch the ground they bounce back up again! Sure, you can get the illusion of duration easily enough by feeding frantically in position, but as soon as the food slows down – boing! Dog is standing again!

Both of these types of dogs, the super sensitive and the super motivated, can be frustrating to train.

However, a year or so ago I fell over a neat little trick to help with both types of dog. I'm sure that it's not new (few things are!), and I doubt that it will be life changing for many of you, but if you are struggling to teach duration, it may be the key you've been looking for: I now teach duration behaviors using a focus point. 

What is a Focus Point?

You may be wondering what I mean by a focus point. Quite simply, it's providing the dog with something to stare at. I got the idea after teaching a number of dogs to stare at a 'bucket' for husbandry procedures. (Thank you, Chirag Patel for the Bucket Game.) Breed Show handlers also use a variation of this when they teach the dog to stare at a handful of food to stack them in the show ring.

So, as a I said, focus points are not new by any means.

What I noticed was that a dog focused on a receptacle or hand containing food (and fed from that same source) would tend to stay still. Duration sorta came along for the ride, if you like. Hmmm.

Can I use that I wondered? And the answer was "Yes."

Duration Tasks 

Think of the times you'd like to teach duration: any stationary behavior needs duration. Holds, targets, even heelwork, all need duration. Heelwork may be a special case, as here in NZ (and in the UK) the handler is allowed to hold their hand on their hip so we don't have fade that left hand out of the picture to the belly button.

Teach the Focus Point

It's pretty simple to teach a dog to stare at a bucket or handful of food! I use a 'good' marker rather than a click to indicate that the food will be hand delivered direct to the mouth – the dog does not have to assist delivery by moving. (Thank you Hannah Branigan!)

Build the Behavior

Next integrate the focus point into the required behavior. For stays I like to use a pot of food rather than my hand. My hand will be coming with me when I start to add distance so that's not going to work so well!

Fade the Focus Point

The last step is to fade out the focus point help. All I do is gradually make it less and less obvious once I have the duration I want.

Case Study: Using a Focus Point to Teach Kenzie Duration

To illustrate this technique a bit more clearly, let me introduce Kenzie, a client of mine.

Kenzie is five years old and SUPER sensitive and suffers from generalised anxiety (under treatment). At five years, Kenzie still didn't really understand duration. Any hint of a delayed click would send her into her hiding spot and she would refuse to play anymore.

While training with me, Kenzie's mum, Karen, has done heaps of work around building her confidence, including Sarah Stremming's "Never wrong, sometimes more right" game and Chirag's Bucket Game. Kenzie's come a long way but we still struggled with getting duration on anything. This was a problem as Karen wanted to teach her a trick – but it involved holding an object for some seconds.

I know, she's a Vizsla – how could she struggle with that? Well, in a training context she did. A lot. It caused her stress and it caused her to shut down. I decided to try using a focus point to help her. I'm doing the training as Karen was scared of 'breaking her.' It wasn't just Kenzie who had stress around this behavior! I'm using a totally novel object. She's never successfully been shaped to pick something up and hold it – the best Karen has got has been to have Kenzie toss it into her lap without lifting her head up.

Here's the video:

I'm sure you can see where this is going. It was very easy for Karen to pick up where I left off to get a decent duration on that hold. Kenzie understands the focus point, my hand with the food, and it gives her confidence to hold that thing! I almost cried when I saw the video – she looks so happy!

This might be old hat for many of you, but for me and my clients the method has been a revelation. Being able to take the stress out of teaching duration has been huge for me – if you're struggling, give the focus point a go and see if it works for you too.

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