The first time we saw the ducks, they were circling sky high. We threw some aggressive hail and comeback calls and followed those up with some shy quacks and contented feeding. These mallards wanted to come in, we just needed to be patient. They continued to drop until they cupped their wings and lowered their landing gear. Everyone sat at attention and was ready to take ’em—except for the dog. He was lying under a blind’s bench, chewing on a section of a two-by-four.
When selecting a dog, hunters usually look for a combination of physical and attitudinal characteristics. Breed, size, weight, good genetics, a good nose, and overall, good health are part of the desired physical attributes. Favored attitudes include strong prey drive, intensity, bird smarts, and biddable dispositions. But once you find a dog with all those traits, he still may lose focus. It’s the handler’s job to get him back on track.
Just as people lose focus, dogs can as well. The good thing about lack of focus is that it can be corrected by training. Most situations are easily overcome by first understanding—and then engaging—the pup. Here are some of the many ways in which I refocus my dogs.
Find out what makes ’em tick
All dogs have different motivations. Some live for praise. Praise can be a verbal compliment, a pat on the head, or several strokes along a back. Other dogs respond well to treats, as food is a strong reward. All dogs are different, so each handler must find out what makes his dog tick.
The easiest way to learn what makes your dog tick is to spend time with him. Watch how he responds when you pet him, give him a treat, or throw a bumper. If you see that he likes a biscuit more than a bumper, then you just learned how to get him focused—he gets a biscuit after he fetches up the bumper. If he likes praise more than the biscuit, then praise him when he fetches it up.
“Understanding what makes a dog tick helps handlers know what motivates them. And a motivated dog is a focused dog.”
Wake up their natural ability
It’s important for handlers to learn what wakes up a dog’s natural ability. Dogs with good genetics have plenty of drive, athleticism, and a willingness to please. If you give a motivated dog a boring task, he’s going to lose focus. Driven dogs want to be tested. They want to excel. As a result, you’ve got to create a training program that brings out his drive, athleticism and willingness to please. Sure, you can throw bumpers in a park, but to keep his focus you’ll need to move on to a more challenging situation. Bring him to a marsh where he’ll need to navigate currents and wind to get a bumper. Raise the bar and run blinds in that marsh. Make sure that he’s having fun and that each task holds his attention. If you wake up your dogs’ natural abilities, their attention will stay sharp.
A black Lab leaping through the air during a training session.
Dogs that are out of shape get tired easily. When they are tired, they have shorter attention spans. From those short attention spans, they lose focus. But high-strung dogs can lose focus, too. If they’re not working hard on a regular basis, they get stressed out. Condition your dog regularly so he’s got plenty of stamina. That stamina will help him stay mentally alert.
Handlers that lose credibility with a dog cause the dog to have a lack of focus. Credibility is lost if dogs are not required to follow through with commands. In that case, a dog is calling the shots and will do whatever it wants to do. The dog is confused about who is running the show.
Confusion also comes when a handler gives a dog too many commands at the same time. Before issuing a second command, allow a dog to follow through on the first one. Remember these five principles: train more, talk less, give clear commands, let your dog follow through with the commands, and praise when he does what you asked. That’s the easiest way to keep your dog focused.
Praise and correction
Dogs need to have praise and fun. If he’s not having fun, he’ll lose focus. If he loses focus, he won’t work in a way that earns him praise. Start by looking to see if your dog is having fun. Look at his tail. If he’s got a cracking, wagging tail while at work, then he’s enjoying what he’s doing. He’ll work in a way that earns him praise, and you’ll all get along together.
Many of the problems come when a dog is excited. Its emotions are running hotter than their brains. The most important part is to calm down the dog. Calm dogs focus while dogs that are excited pay little attention to a handler. A dog that isn’t listening isn’t focused at all.
Make sure your praise-to-correction ratio is around a 70/30 mix. Put your dog in a situation for success, praise him when he does things right, encourage him to do things right, and you’ll have a focused dog that is happy following commands.
No dog is focused 100 percent of the time. But by better understanding your dog, you can get him to be focused when necessary. It’ll make for a strong bond, and from that connection comes a better time when training or in the blind.
RESOURCES ON SPORTING DOG PERFORMANCE
What To Consider When Selecting A Sporting Dog Puppy
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