Training Tips

Dog Training: Teaching Focus

A couple of weeks ago, I went to a seminar put on by Tami McLeod of Absolute K9 Solutions. This is the second time I’ve attended one of her trainings, and like the last time, I learned a lot. This session was a bit different because it included a group of Diabetic Alert Dogs, their handlers and a few puppy raisers (me).

Owning a service dog is not easy. A person may purchase a fully trained Diabetic Alert Dog, but dogs are smart and if desired behaviors aren’t reinforced, they diminish. So, training service dogs is also about training handlers. That’s why Tami McLeod came out. People had questions about the best way to handle their dogs. While there wasn’t a specific topic, as the day progressed I noticed many of the questions and much of Tami’s instruction came back to focus.

Tami holds the treat in her hand, but rewards only when the dog makes eye contact.


What does focus mean exactly? Given various scenarios, does the dog ignore distractions and respond to his handler? Remember, these dogs are with their handlers twenty-four hours a day–at work, at school, out at restaurants–everywhere. They are surrounded by distractions. Teaching focus increases the dog’s attention span and, as a result, the dog can give more consistent alerts on high and low blood sugars.

Basic Focus Test: Sitting at Heel

Tami asked a handler to come up and have the dog sit at heel. Tami approached the dog from the front. When the dog quit looking up into his handler’s eyes and paid attention to Tami, she stopped. She told the handler to give the “look” command and when the dog made eye contact, he got a treat. The handler became a “human Pez dispenser.” Meaning, anytime the dog looked up and made eye contact with his handler he got a treat. The goal, over time, is that no matter who approaches, the dog maintains eye contact with his handler, sitting calmly at her side.

This Labrador thinks that Tami is very interesting. His handler? Not so much.
This Labrador is at heel, but his nose tells you he would like to be someplace else.

Tami did this from every angle-left side, right side, behind. Each time the dog stopped looking at his handler and paid attention to her, Tammi stopped, the handler gave the “look” command and when the dog made eye contact he got a treat.

What’s the dog learning? Paying attention to my handler is a good thing, and results in something I like, FOOD.

One important factor? Really good treats! Tami introduced me to Natural Balance Dog Food Rolls, a high value reward. Cut them big. Keep them cold. Refrigerate what you don’t use. No dog will be able to resist them. (I will be honest and tell you they smell TERRIBLE and you will need to wash your hands right after the training session.)


Ears up. Focus on.
Not all dogs focus only on food. For this Malinois, balls worked too.

The next focus test we set up included distractions–two bags of food and a water bottle spread out on the grass. Each handler had to snake their way through, walking backwards, dog in front. The dog could not sniff/stop/eat any of the distractions.

A lab puppy a few weeks younger than Sherlock.
Walking backward, keeping the treat in the right spot and paying attention to your puppy is not easy! It takes of repetition for both the dog and the handler!
When you begin, your puppy needs constant reinforcement. Place the treat in your hand so the puppy can lick it.

This time, I got to work with Sherlock. Since he loves food, and we’ve never worked food distractions before, I got a big chunk of the Natural Balance Dog Food Roll, and made a fist over it, with a bit of the food sticking out between my thumb and pointer finger. Sherlock stayed front, nose in my hand, licking the food, as we snaked around the distractions. We stopped once, right next to a bag of food, and I pulled my hand up to my chest. As the training progresses, Sherlock has to learn to wait for his food and keep focus. Sherlock did not break eye contact. I held the food for a second at my chest, then gave him a treat. We snaked through the rest of the distractions, and Sherlock got a compliment on his focus from Tami. What a superstar! 🙂

Finally, if you’re treat treat treating your dog like a human Pez dispenser, remember to cut back on dinner. Food as a behavior modification tool is less effective when your dog has too much junk in his trunk.

So, get going! Become a human Pez dispenser! May your training be fabulous, and your dog be focused. 🙂



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