Let’s All Focus

Picture this…you are watching TV or reading a book. Someone walks in and asks you a question. Do you respond immediately? Probably not. Why? Your focus was elsewhere. You need to stop focusing on what you were doing, and shift attention to the question. Now how quickly you can switch tasks depends in large part on how interesting the show/movie or book is. If you’re not that into it, you can switch more quickly. But there is still going to be a delay. Your brain can’t just flip from one task to another in the blink of an eye. If you are thoroughly engrossed in what you are watching/reading, the switch will be harder. You may even be annoyed and frustrated with the interruption. “Hello! Can’t you see I’m watching a movie?/Reading a book???” “What do you want????” I think we can all relate. The other half of the equation relates to the difficulty of the question. If it’s something simple like “do you want a glass of water”, the switch is easier…it doesn’t require much effort. But if the question requires thought and focus, then the shift is more challenging…and it definitely requires more time. You need to stop what you are doing, shift your focus, go from a relaxed state of mind to a thoughtful, engaged, problem solving state of mind. That takes effort and time. Try it some time. And pay attention. I’ve been engrossed in something at work, had a co-worker ask a question, and I just stare blankly at them. I know they asked something, but I can’t even process it. There is just too much going on…there is background noise, I’m keeping an eye on other dogs in the room, I’m listening to my client, while my hands are working on their dog…ummmm…”what did you ask me?” They repeat it. Even then it can be a struggle. Why then do we expect our dogs to turn on full engagement immediately, if not sooner? Why is it so hard to be patient? And give them time to go from thinking doggie thoughts to focusing on a task that requires complete focus? Why are we surprised when it takes longer for the dog to get focused in a novel and distracting environment? Patience! Dogs are really not that different from us. Just like us, their brain must shift from one task to another. Just like us, the more engaging the current task is, the harder it is to move away from it and on to something else. Just like us, if the new task requires lots of focus, the shift will take longer. Just like us, if they dog is in a distracting environment, it will be even harder to give you full engagement. When I observe teams in training or at trials, I often see the handler disconnect from the dog. Which means the handler lost focus. When I have students train in distracting environments, they always tell me how hard it is to maintain concentration. Staying fully engaged with one task for an extended period of time is not easy. It requires effort. And practice. I know this from first-hand experience. Yes, I’m pretty good at staying focused. But that’s because it’s a skill I very specifically worked on…for years! And although I can do it, it’s still hard to this day! Now put yourself in your dog’s paws. They will have the same challenges! Even more so. Because they don’t have context. They don’t understand the big picture. What do they know, or care, about q’s or scores or ribbons or titles or points … they are not concerned about saving face in front of your friends or peers. They are dogs. They are doing the best they can with what we taught them. They are looking for context and cues. That’s it. In that aspect they are not like us. Add working in a vacuum to their already long list of challenges. Now, this doesn’t mean the dog can’t do it. We just need to be patient. We need to be understanding. We need to be realistic. The next time you are frustrated because your dog isn’t switching focus quickly, or your dog loses focus, or your dog doesn’t perform in a distracting environment like they do at home, or your dog has trouble maintaining engagement for a period of time…be patient. Put yourself in your dog’s paws.