Focus? Is my dog really focused on the task at hand? How do I know if they are?
We as humans tend to try to "multi-task" and do more than one thing at the same time. How well we can do more than one thing is debatable. Our dogs are capable of doing the same thing to some degree.
There are signs that we can easily recognized when our dog has lost focus - they go off sniffing, they run over to something interesting or they take off running 90 mph in large circles. However the times that we don't often recognize are when the dog is still doing obstacles in sequence. The dog may be sniffing as they are doing them or they may be looking over their shoulder as they do them or they even may be looking ahead but their mind is elsewhere.
Having just competed in an AKC trial where my Pyr Shep by all accounts appeared to be focused on agility however to a very keen observer she was most often not totally focused on the job of running agility. On our first standard run of the weekend she was running quite well until we got to the table. She slammed on the brakes two feet from the table. I felt the judge's presence behind me and knew instantly that she and he had made eye contact. It took me three tries to get her on the table. This is a recurring problem that became very bad last year at an AKC trial with a male judge who had a loud voice. This time, once I got her on the table - I just asked her to get on it - we left the ring and had treats to reward her herculean effort to work through a fear and get on the table.
The next day in that same ring with the same judge on a standard course she ran slower but fine until the table again. She went up and put one foot on it and then backed away from it. It only took two tries to get her on it and she went down easily. I decided to keep going on the course this time and she flew through the rest of the course and we had a party. On day three the male judge was in the JWW ring and we ran there first. She was distracted on the start - I could tell her mind was elsewhere. She came off the start line slowly and then as we turned toward the weaves she veered off them as if there was a strong magnetic field on the weaves pushing her away from them. I knew instantly that her mind was on the judge. Now Feisty is a very interesting dog, she has a lot of concerns in her life but she also likes to work through her fears. I've said all along with her that she doesn't like to be afraid - she likes to feel tough and be in control. So as we were renegotiating the weaves (I don't like her to think it is OK to avoid an obstacle - I made that mistake once and it took a while for me to train her that she must do each obstacle) she was wanting to approach him albeit reluctantly. I knew she was concerned about him. He was being quiet and still. I tried to get between him and her and help her out. She did the weaves but then as the course curved back toward him she squirted away from him again. I just kept running as if the course went that way.
My point in sharing all of this is that so often we think a dog is focused on us just because they are looking in our direction at the start line. However just like humans we can look at each other when one is talking but our minds can be elsewhere. A keen observer or one that knows their dog well can tell the difference. I know when Feisty is slow to come off the start line that it is not a hearing problem but a listening problem. Her mind is not really listening for my release but is thinking of something else. She scans the ring and scopes out what equipment is out there and who and where the judge is. In Feisty's case stress and lack of focus are often combined.
I saw the same things in Tay all weekend, she was not focused on the tasks at hand however hers was not tied to stress as much as Feisty's. Even though I run with her at the start line I can tell when she is not focused on starting with me. She is the queen of going through the motions and looking like she is doing agility when in reality she is not paying attention to my cues and she will turn wide or miss an obstacle. Hitting the weaves at speed requires a lot of concentration for green dogs and she could not handle it all weekend long. At home with minimal distractions she can do weaves with speed from anywhere. Trials are very distracting for her. She can do weaves in group classes and with set-up distractions that I create. I'm finding I have to be more vocal and I have to make my signals more exaggerated at trials than I do in training in order to keep her attention. It is not in my comfort zone.
I realized that last year when I pulled Tay off the start line for not staying and when I corrected her for not stopping on her dogwalk contact that I created stress on those two things. I did so because she had lost focus and didn't realize what she was supposed to do. I should have, in retrospect, addressed her lack of focus/attention instead of lack of performance of a behavior. I can see now when she is not focused on the task at hand and I've been able to shout at her (again not in my comfort zone) and I've seen her visibly startle and then she performs the behavior. That tells me that she really was not with me thinking about the task at hand but her mind had wandered off. It also explains why she often will take tunnels way out of the way on a course.
I used to think Tay may be suffering from ring stress but I believe it is lack of focus. There have been a few times when she has been stressed due to other factors (scary smells etc.) and I can tell she is stressed because she has "whale eye" when running and often she will visibly shake. But when she is not focused her nose will be on the ground when running or she will be looking at obstacles instead of at me for direction. She does best on complicated courses where I have to keep moving and doing a lot of crosses - it keeps her attention. The wide open flowing courses (of the lower levels in agility) give her too much time to let her mind wander. She is talented though and she can do long sequences by going through the motions but I can tell she is not giving me 100% of her attention.
Tay and I ran two days of a seminar (half days actually) and she ran great - she was fast and focused. I know she has the skills to do agility and she is well trained for the game. Something about trials causes her to be distracted. Many years ago I used to be a nervous wreck showing my dogs but since then I have learned that I can survive just about anything that happens in the ring. I think just about everything and anything that can go wrong on course has happened to me and I've survived. So I really don't worry about things at trials. I try to be the best I can for my dogs. It is a continuing challenge to read my dogs and I wish I could anticipate how they will be before we step to the line instead of having to adapt to the situation as we run. So far I have not found any precursor clues to let me know how focused my dogs will be before we step to the line. But just like us, their moods can change the minute they step into the ring. They feel the energy from everyone around them and even if I'm not stressed there are plenty of stressed people out there. The judge could be stressed, the ring crew could be stressed, the exhibitors waiting are stressed, the dog that just ran could have been stressed and left a trail of stress pheromones - many things are possible that are beyond my control.
At this point all I can do is know the signs of lack of focus versus stress in my dogs. Sometimes the two are related and sometimes they are not. We have to learn to become excellent observers of our dog's behaviors and of our own behaviors.
I recommend if you have a dog that performs inconsistently at trials that you keep a detailed journal of every run at a trial. Feisty has kept a detailed journal and my goal is to keep one that is more detailed than hers so I can learn to recognize patterns of behavior and signs that will impact her behavior on course. I'm slower to learn than she is about these things. This weekend I came one step closer to the solving the puzzle known as Feisty and the puzzle known as Tay.