Maintaining Focus

Attention and focus can make or break a performance.

This article ran Feb 18, 2020 USDAA Training Tuesday

It is hard for your dog to learn, perform a skill or exercise correctly, if you do not have his complete attention. When training, insist that your dog pay 100 percent attention to you, and be alert for any breaks in focus that may happen.

Once you begin a training session, be aware of any “down time” that may occur while you are working with your dog. Down time happens when you are getting more treats, setting up jumps, walking a course, etc. During this time, if your dog is allowed to wonder around, sniff or visit with others, he is rehearsing a behavior that you most certainly will frown upon later when competing.

Rehearse goDebby Quigley and Rip focusingod HABITS. Before ever getting your dog out of a crate, make a plan. With a plan in mind, you will be able to set out everything you need for your training session. Being prepared will enable you to move from one skill or exercise to the next without losing your dog’s focus. While you are working with your dog, insist that he give his undivided attention and stays engaged with you.

How do you do this? One way is to randomly reward your dog’s effort to pay attention to you by paying him with treats or a game of tug. WHAT? your dog won’t tug? Play the “KrazyKookie” game with him. This is a great game of having him chase the treat that stays in your hand until he catches the yummy.

Next, teach your dog it is in his best interest to watch you closely. While training, be unpredictable and spontaneous with your movements, or give unexpected commands to discourage him from taking even a single glance away from you. Your ability to praise and reward attention, and to discourage inattentiveness, will have a direct effect on your dog’s performance during training and also in a ring setting.

While training, maintain your dog’s focus in non-audible ways. Here are a few ideas:

Debby Quigley and her dogs

  • Push and run away, or push and play tug or KrazyKookie with your dog.
  • Drop a toy or treat pocket to your dog that is hidden underneath your arm.
  • When leaving on a sit or start-line, quickly turn and toss a reward to your dog.

Attention and focus can make or break a performance in any sport. Work to build and maintain your dog’s focus on you during all training sessions that will ensure your success when competing or showing.

Look for Debby’s “Games4Focus,” “Skills, Drills, and Thrills” and “Focus Cram” classes to learn more fun games, drills and techniques to getting and maintaining focus while training and competing.

Debby Quigley been showing and teaching for more than 30 years in many venues including obedience, rally, agility and nose work. She has earned multiple OTCHs, MACHs, PACHs and perfect scores of 200. Debby also owns Dogwood Dog Training in Houston, Texas; she teaches classes there and online at

Getting frustrated when training???

Some people grind their teeth or hold their breath while training while others clench their fists or rattle off a string of swearwords. When the frustration of training your dog comes to a boil, there are a countless number of ways to respond.

Keep in mind that our dogs can get very frustrated, too! Especially when we fail to give clear directions, are inconsistent with our criteria or when we put them in a stressful no win situation.

Dog training comes with many opportunities for us to become frustrated. You started training your dog to develop rapport, maybe show and to have a well-mannered companion. Who knew that there was so much involved in teaching and training a dog.

Training a dog, regardless of the method, is bound to bring you lots of joy as well as frustration. Addressing problems when training your dog can take time and patience.

The problem with frustration is that it often leads to an emotional outburst. Ever lash out with harsh words directed at your dog during a particularly challenging training session? We are only human. It happens! In dog training, these emotional outbursts often manifest in strong verbal reprimands or other unfair corrections.

Interacting with your dog in an angry way carries the risk of damaging your relationship with your dog. It can also create an anxious dog, or one who “shuts down” when uncertain of what to do or how to be correct.

So how do we get past being frustrated ? It’s much easier to teach a dog what you want as opposed to what you don’t want. That’s why positive reinforcement training is effective. Positive reinforcement is built on a solid foundation of recognizing and rewarding correct behavior.

It’s proactive, not reactive.

I admit to having moments of frustration while training. Despite the years of effort I have put into building strong, positive relationships with my dogs, I still sometimes find myself beating my head on a wall when sessions aren’t going as I’d expected. The trick lies in learning to manage the frustration in ways that are productive and that can even enhance your training sessions.

Try some of the following strategies:

Relax and remember to breathe. Sounds easy enough, but frustration and stress can inhibit your breathing, which affects your body language. Dogs by nature are very aware of our emotions. By concentrating on slow, deep breathing, you take in more oxygen, and your shoulders, neck, and upper chest muscles become more relaxed. Count slowly to 4 as you exhale and 4 as you inhale. It works miracles and a great tip for show nerves too!

Pay attention to your dog’s behavior. Dogs may respond to stress in a number of ways. These signs can include yawning, licking lips, sniffing the ground, etc. If you notice your dog engaging in any of these behaviors during training, stop and analyze what is happening in your session. These signs may be an indicator that your dog is attempting to de-stress the situation and you!

Just stop, no worries!!! It’s okay to stop training when things aren’t going well. Sometimes the best thing to do is call it quits for the day. Go have a drink or call a friend and think about what went wrong and possible ways of fixing the problem. When you’ve separated yourself from the “training gone wrong” situation, look at what you were doing and see what changes and improvements might be made. People often feel the need to end on a good note but sometimes you are much better off just stopping then digging a deeper hole. Always remember “the problem will still be there when you pick back up in your training.”

Take notes. Learn to recognize and appreciate the small improvements along the way to complete problem solving can be a valuable tool to reduce your frustration. Organized trainers keep training logs that document results of each training session. Analyzing sessions offer information about your dog’s rate of progress, and helps you fine-tune and improve your training plan.

There are many types of record-keeping. Some examples include apps on Smart phones, pre-printed training logs or just a small spiral notebook. Here are some ideas of what kind of notes to take. 1) Keep track of how many times you repeat or practice a skill 2) How often was your dog correct or incorrect? 3) How much or what type of reinforcement did you use or did you do something special to fix a problem. In addition, make notes of any ideas you want to try during your next training session. The more notes you take the better. Sometimes writing down a problem gives you the correct direction to take to fix it!

Don’t take it personally. It is sometimes hard to not obsess over your dog’s issues and training problems. Factor in your personality type and it can be a real test in emotional self-control. Above all try to keep from feeling that your dog is purposely showing you “the paw” when things aren’t going as you planned.

Remember we’re only human. Do I still get frustrated? Yes of course. I’m far from perfect, but when I find myself getting frustrated, first I stop and think of ways to fix the problem. If my dog does something totally unexpected, I mark the behavior with a non-reward marker like “you’re fired” or “really” to let the dog know he is wrong. We then try the skill again. If he repeatedly makes the same mistakes, I step back and analyze if my dog truly understands the skill I am asking him to perform.

Logical we know that disobedience isn’t personal, but this can be tough to remember in heat of the moment. One of the greatest gifts I’ve learned in training dogs is the ability to accept my training errors, recover, and move on. It’s easy to blame the dog. It’s harder to look at how our own actions likely contributed to the dog’s inability to perform to your expectations or hopes.

When all else fails always remember that our dogs are never with us nearly long enough. Enjoy the time you have with your dog and always build the relationship that you will be able to look back with fond memories of all your dogs.

STOP Shut Down :<(

(Or learned helplessness)!
How many times have you heard a trainer comment, “he just shuts down” or “he doesn’t like to work under this condition”?

What happens when a dog “shuts down”?

Shutting down is when a dog has stopped trying to do what is being asked because he has learned he is never right and cannot win in the situation. Imagine if every time you raised your hand and tried to answer a question in class your teacher screams at you “NO YOU ARE WRONG.” No matter how many ways or times you tried to answer the question, you were told that you were wrong and never told what the correct answer was. How many times would this happen before you would no longer attempt to try to answer even a simple question?

The most telling characteristics of “shut down” in a dog are:
* A dog that is unresponsive to motivators and rewards. In other words, the dog will not play or interact with the trainer and rarely will eat treats.
* The dog’s posture is guarded and they may react slowly or not at all to commands and/or signals.
* The dog has checked out mentally i.e. “nothing at home” or “deer in the headlights” look.
* The dog might display stress signs such as lip licking or avoiding eye contact.
* Shut down is sometimes confused with “submission.”

It is important to note that a dog in a shutdown state is not necessarily exhibiting what is referred to as learned helplessness. However, for the purpose of this article, we are referring to learned helplessness.

What is Learned Helplessness in Dogs?
Learned helplessness is a psychological state that occurs when an animal has been repeatedly hurt either mentally or physically and has no way to escape or win. The dog shuts down, and in some cases is almost paralyzed or unresponsive. The “hurt” might be unintentionally caused by the trainer through progressing too rapidly in training, lack of communication of the concepts, or inappropriate proofing.

Why am I talking about shut down and learned helplessness?
This is a huge training problem that, for the most part, can be avoided. Every time you unfairly punish, correct, or nag your dog, you risk creating this behavior.

Some dogs that have learned to shut down are permanently handicapped when learning new behaviors that require thought. The dog would rather not attempt to learn the new skill because of the fear of being incorrect. They view learning a new behavior is a bad thing, so they only offer what they consider is the “safe behavior” that is not trying or giving effort.

Here are the top errors that trainers make that teach their dog to give up or shut down!

Mistake #1: “Positive = permissive”
Today’s dog trainers are using more positive methods to teach skills and modify behaviors. While this is great, many trainers feel that all interactions with their dogs need to be purely positive. In other words, there is little to no consequence for the lack of effort or bad behavior. It is important for a dog to understand the difference between right and wrong. Equally important is that the dog has boundaries. Training starts with setting clear boundaries and controlling the resources in the dog’s life, which includes affection and play.

Mistake #2: Dependency on luring
As straightforward as luring can be, it can also cause problems. In the beginning stages, some dogs become too focused on the lure to think about what they’re doing. Another potential problem with luring is that some dogs become dependent on the lure, i.e. they become the “show me the money” dogs. These dogs will not perform until they know there is something in it for them. This is easier to prevent than it is to fix, but it’s certainly not going to ruin a dog if it happens. Preventing lure-dependency is as simple as not letting the lure become a pattern. Use your lure to help the dog get into position 3-5 times and then get it out of your hand. You’ve now switched from luring the dog (showing him what he could have ahead of time) to rewarding him (surprising him with something special after he does what you want.)

Mistake #3: Poor timing
Timing is essential in dog training! Poor timing means you could be marking behaviors, right or wrong, inappropriately, or rewarding the wrong behavior. Incorrect timing sends the wrong message and prolongs your dog’s ability to properly learn the skill. The old saying “timing is everything” was written for dog trainers!

Mistake #4: improper use of proofing
Proofing or testing your dog’s understanding of a skill under all circumstances, is extremely important if you want to have success when showing in any venue. Unfortunately, many trainers believe in an all or nothing approach to proofing. It is important for a dog’s confidence that he understands understand how to “win” in a proofing scenario. If you are in a new location, attempting a new distraction or practicing a sequence of skills, make sure to explain how your dog can win if he has problems sorting out what to do.

Mistake #5: lack of consistency
The key to all training is consistency. If you’re not consistent, you are not going to get a good result. In addition, your dog will not know what to expect which will diminish his confidence. A leader needs the trust and respect of the dog. You want to make it as simple as possible for your dog to learn. The only way that will happen, is being a consistent trainer. Sit means sit the first time you say it. The criteria need to be the same each and every time. Inconsistency will only confuse your dog.

“It’s not what we do once in a while that shapes our lives. It’s what we do consistently.” ― Anthony Robbins

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DISTRACTION TRAINING (or proofing) builds your dog’s confidence, focus, and attention on you so that your dog can perform a skill any place, anytime, no matter what is happening. During this week we will look at various ways to proof your dog.

Training Note: it is not bad for your dog to be wrong. Your dog being wrong is your opportunity to teach your dog how to be correct.

What impacts your dog’s ability to work when in the presence of distractions?

  • How far your dog is from the distraction.
  • The distance you are from your dog. The closer you are to your dog, the more confidence your dog will have.
  • The value of the distraction. High value reinforcements (1’s) used as distractions are more difficult for your dog to be right than low value reinforcements (3’s) used as distractions.
    whether the distraction is moving or stationary.
  • Whether your dog is moving or stationary.
  • Your dog’s basic temperament. Some dogs worry about things in the environment; some dogs are very visually sensitive; some dogs have noise sensitivities, etc.

Watch your dog for signs of stress when working on distractions. Your goal is to build your dog’s confidence, not make your dog worry.

Some of the signs of stress are:

  • ears laid back
  • panting
  • yawning
  • mouth tight
  • low body posture
  • eyes wide or glassy

Training Note: If your dog is unsuccessful twice in a row, simplify what you are doing BUT keep the distraction present.


  • If you are working away from your dog (such as doing a recall), and your dog was unsuccessful two times in a row, decrease the distance between you and your dog. So if you were standing 20’ away when your dog was unsuccessful, shorten that distance to 10’ but keep the distraction in the same location.
  • Another way to simplify is to increase the distance between your dog’s position or path and the location of the distraction. So if the distraction was 5’ away from your dog or your dog’s path, move the distraction so that it is 8’ away from your dog or your dog’s path.
  • Remember: If your dog is unsuccessful twice in a row, do something to SIMPLIFY BUT keep the distraction present.

Knowing how to proof successfully will create a confident and happy working dog that can rise to any occasion that might happen while training or in a show ring.

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Make a PLAN!

What’s a training plan, and how do I make one?

Before you start training a skill, you need to make a training plan.

The key to successful dog training is in the planning.  The following is a step by step method to aid you in developing a training plan for a skill you would like to train or one you are currently training yet hitting a wall of problems.

Make it EASY

Take your time to think through and analyze each step.  Concentrate on one skill at first.  Get use to organizing and planning.  As you go through this program with each skill you want to teach your dog, you will find planning a training program will become easier.

Do you have trouble organizing a training plan?

The first step is to describe the skill, and set your criteria.  The more detailed the plan, the better your results.  What will the finished skill look like?

The second step is to evaluate where you currently are.  If this is a brand new skill, you are starting from the first step.  If this is a skill you have been working on, evaluate the skill.  Keeping records will tell you what your dog is doing reliably and what still needs improving.

The final step is to make a plan to get from where you are to where you want to be.  Start with the skill.  Break it into responses, and shape it to the perfection you are looking to achieve.

As you train, keep your training plans handy for tracking your progress. Periodically review your training plan, and revise the definition of the final behavior, if necessary. Don’t stop working on the skill until your dog performs the skill to match your criteria in step one.

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Balance in YOUR Training


To establish balance in training, one should understand the difference between “regimented training” and “motivational training.”

Regimented training often has precise steps with a beginning and an end. Many times “regimented training” is applied to all dogs regardless of the dog’s maturity, ability and without consideration of the dog’s natural drive or willingness to please.

On the other hand, a well thought out “motivational training” method, consists of a never ending cycle of planning, teaching, building drive (I want to work), and evaluating.


The planning phase of motivational training provides a direction for all your training session. It is needed to stay on task. Take the time to set goals, define behaviors and break down desired skills into as many pieces possible.

Regular evaluation enables you to assess results and analyze techniques. Is it working?

Constant consideration of the dog’s attitude is needed during and after all training sessions. As a result, modify your training plan accordingly to increase or decrease your dog’s attitude. I.E. should you add more play and motivation or add more self-control and precision.

Training methods should be flexible to best accommodate your dog.

The right BALANCE in training will produce a precise dog that remains energized and eager to work.  A true pleasure to watch and train!

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Getting ready for National Event?

I am often asked “how do I get ready for a National event?”

A few months before the event, my training sessions start to consist of My Training 3’s.

  • 1 skill, review foundation – example-pick up dumbbell up close, drop/back/down games, etc.
  • 1 skill, build desire – example – adding games to the Broad Jump like the toss back as dog lands or while he is on his sit.
  • 1 skill, proof – example – adding distraction, training new locations, etc.

Pick 3 exercises or skills and do 3’s training.  This would be the entire training session.  Short and sweet.    

Reminder that there are many SKILLS in every exercise or sequence. It is important to write a list of ALL skills in every exercise or sequence you want to train with your dog.   Once you have all the skills written out, make sure that you build desire, precision, and proof all the skills.  This will help ensure your success when you show.

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Decide WHAT you want to Accomplish BEFORE you Grab your DOG!

Before you begin to train,
consider exactly what you want to train.
What do you want to accomplish during your training session?

For example if you are training or reviewing a sit with your dog, consider the following questions:

  • How will you cue the command?  Will you give your dog a verbal or physical cue or both?
  • How long should your dog sit?  Should he just sit and then stand up, or should he remain in the sit until given a release word?
  • What does the command “sit” mean to you?  Does it mean a rock or tuck sit?  Should your dog remain in the position until told differently?
  • Do you want the dog to sit in front of you?  Sit next to you?  Or should your dog just sit where he is, no matter where you are, or what you are doing?
  • What will you do if your dog sits slowly or not at all?  Will you mark and correct?  Or will you give another command?
  • Will you be sequencing the sit with other skills?  Which ones if so?
  • How will you reward the sit if done well?  Go to your dog and give a reward?  Toss a toy or treat to your dog?  Will you break into a game to reward?
  • Are you going to start proofing the sit with your dog?  If so, what will you do?  Will you add distractions to the training environment?  Will you go to a new location?  How distracting do you want the session?

All these questions are important, because you need to be able to be pro-active in your training with consequences as well as rewards.
Being able to respond quickly and be prepared for what might happen, will give you the upper hand with your training and help you become consistent with your cues and criteria.


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Do you want to be successful when showing?

When starting to establish goals, one of the first items on your agenda will be to set goals for both you and your dog.

The old adage, “there are only so many hours in a day” holds true when you are making both short and long term goals.  You will have to decide exactly how much time and effort you are willing to devote to training.  The results of your efforts and time spent will be reflected in your dog’s ability to learn and execute skills consistently.

Goal-setting is a powerful method for achievement as it provides a way to view objectives and changes. Goals can be set for daily, weekly, monthly or yearly target dates. Setting goals focuses attention to the important aspects of the mission. The key to setting effective goals is to create objective goals that can be measured and give direction.

The following will help you set YOUR goals:

  • Ask yourself what you want to work toward and achieve. Goals need to be in your control, challenging yet realistic and positive. Positive goals direct what to do rather than what not to do!
  • Effective goals are very specific.  The clearer the objective the easier to imagine and obtain.
  • Use short-term goals to help reach long-term goals. Short-term goals can provide more motivation since they are more readily achievable and make great stepping stones.
  • Effective goals are limited in number and important to you. Setting a limited number of goals requires that you decide what is the most useful for your continued development. Establishing a few, carefully selected goals also allow you to keep accurate records without becoming overwhelmed.
  • Set specific Time Lines. Target dates have a tendency to remove lighthearted ideas and clarify what goals are realistic and which are not.
  • Create action steps. These steps are going to help you achieve your goal and will define the actions you need to take to reach your goals. The number of action steps depends on the goals you set.
  • Write down your goals and post them in places where they will be seen throughout the day. Place a sticky note on the fridge or your bathroom mirror or an index card in your training bag or car. Visual cues will increase the likelihood you will achieve your goal.
  • Track your progress. Use a notebook, calendar, or anything you can log information so you can monitor your progress. Writing down and reviewing your progress will help you stay motivated and repeatedly remind you of where you were and how far you have come.
  • When asked to set goals, many people typically focus on the learning of new skills or performances in competitions. Goals can cover many aspects of your training, showing or life. Some goal examples might include, improve fitness, increase mental toughness, or establish better timing and consistency.

When carefully thought out and written, goals give direction and tell us what we need in order to accomplish our dreams.  Establishing goals also helps obtain information and ways for how to achieve the goals.


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pottyI love getting a new puppy.

However, it is no fun having to clean up mistakes on the floor. In order to teach a puppy to go potty outside, keep him in his crate if you are unable to watch him during the day and at night.   As soon as your puppy wakes up, finishes eating or playing, or you come home, take your puppy outside on leash. Yes on leash!

The leash should be a regular leash and not a retractable one.  A retractable leash teaches a puppy to pull on the leash.  In addition, puppies are harder to control when they are on a retractable leash.  I prefer a 4-6 foot leash made of rope or something similar.

Potty Training

Get your puppy use to potting on the leash AND teach him the appropriate place in your yard to potty. Yes take your puppy to the same area every day to potty. Over time he will learn to potty in that area. The habits you build now will enhance your success later.

When taking your puppy out to potty, choose a keyword or phrase such as “Outside!” or “Go Potty!” and use it every time you take your puppy outside to potty. Being consistent with commands and criteria will increase the chances that that your puppy or dog will learn to potty outside.

Keep in mind that young puppies have limited bladder control and that you cannot expect them to refrain from peeing or pooping for long periods. It is important to get your puppy out as often as possible such as when waking up, after eating or playing and before bedtime.

Here is a good example;
The crate you choose should be sized so your puppy can move around easily.  You do not want the crate to be so large that your puppy can potty on one end and sleep in the other. I prefer a closed or plastic kennel (crate) opposed to an open wire one.  Accidents do happen and the plastic ones are easier to clean.  Something like this is a good size.

Crates are relatively inexpensive so I usually give my puppy crate to the local pet shelter when my puppy grows too big for the crate.

You will discover, if used properly, a puppy crate and a leash are both useful training tools and keep your house a happy place for your new puppy or dog.

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