Handler Focus vs. Obstacle Focus

Finch on the Table: Handler Focus

Is your dog too focused on you? Or, does your dog ignore your handling as they race to the next obstacle they see? Developing a balance between handler focus and obstacle focus is an important skill for every agility dog.

Regardless of your handling system, the goal of most handlers is to get the two types of focus as close to 50-50 as possible. Actually achieving this is rare, but thinking about focus in the context of “keeping the balance” will improve your training.

Mobility-challenged handlers are the biggest exception to the 50-50 goal. They typically need a greater percentage of obstacle focus to keep the dog aiming for obstacles despite their distance from the dog’s path. The trade-off is that these dogs are more likely to take off-course obstacles.

Certain breeds or types of dogs veer one way or the other. In my experience, herding dogs tend to be more handler focused, whereas hounds and terriers tend to be more obstacle focused.

Which Do You Have?

Your dog is more obstacle focused if he…

  • Takes off-course obstacles that you are 100% certain you are not cueing with your body.
  • “Flicks away” from your path to take obstacles you’re not indicating.
  • Could be described as a (fill-in-the-blank) “sucker” – tunnel sucker, contact sucker, etc.

Strata on the Teeter: Handler FocusYour dog is more handler focused if he…

  • Requires multiple cues to take an obstacle.
  • Earns refusals on obstacles that you are quite certain you are appropriately cueing with your body and trained verbal cues.
  • Chases you, ignoring your handling completely, but not taking any obstacles. (This is common if the dog is stressed or confused, and is sometimes accompanied by shrill barking or nipping at the handler.)

Achieving a Focus Balance

If your dog is obstacle focused, your goal is to train your dog to keep an eye or ear on you while performing “turning obstacles” like jumps and straight tunnels, so he can promptly respond to your handling cues.

  • Practice handling skills on the flat, away from the equipment. Also called shadow handling, reinforcement zone, or come to heel, this means rewarding the dog for running at your side. Include front crosses and turning cues, like deceleration and lateral motion. When your dog is doing this well, practice these maneuvers around equipment, occasionally cueing your dog to take an obstacle.
  • Work on your recall around distractions. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that almost every too-obstacle-focused dog I’ve worked with has a shoddy recall. If you can’t call your dog off a leaf fluttering in the wind, you won’t stand a chance of keeping his attention around his beloved agility equipment!
  • When running sequences, reward your dog just as often, if not more often, for responding to your handling cues and not just rewarding each piece of equipment. For example, if you’re working on threadles, reward your dog for coming in to you when you put up your opposite hand, not for taking the second jump.

If your dog is handler focused, your goal is to train your dog to look for equipment and focus forward on course, turning to you only when cued to do so.

  • Go “back to basics” and reward your dog more often for performing individual obstacles – including jumps! Many handlers take jumping for granted if they have a dog that typically keeps bars up.
  • While going back to basics, put in some effort to add a cue to each obstacle. Verbal cues are another tool in your arsenal that tell your dog to look for equipment, not to look to you.
  • Find exercises for distance training (such as the skills required for Gamblers/Chances) and work on those. Most handler-focused dogs are “velcro” dogs that don’t want to move away from your side to find equipment.
  • Praise your dog for taking initiative and offering a piece of equipment, even if you haven’t cued it. You don’t have to give a valued reward (food/tug) but acknowledge your dog’s effort to seek out equipment.

Whichever type of “focus” your dog has, identify it and make a training plan to hone it. Happy training!

Many thanks to Katie Rogers at Smiling Wolf Photography for the photos in this blog post!

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