November 6, 2013

Handler Focus isn't just for the dogs!

I wrote this a little before its time not realizing that today's dog agility blogger event was on the Mental Game. So enjoy if you haven't seen this yet and then click on over and see what everyone else has to say. May you learn something new!

Wow where have the days gone? I have been focusing so intently on our "big" agility goal that I have had very little left over for much else. (more on that later)

Focus.... It is something I have been striving for lately. Not just in agility but during work, at home, during my work outs. What is focus? How do we use it? Can there be too much of it?

I found this article Five Levels of Mental Focus I thought was interesting enough to share. Apparently, too much focus is Obsession hmmm. Food for thought. I don't believe I fall in to the obsession column just yet (my husband may disagree).

Yet I have found that during an agility run that I have become hyper-focused on one particular part of the course or move that needed to be executed and the result has not been good. Then there are those runs that I have lost focus and it resulted in an off course or less than appropriate handling being executed. It got me to thinking about my mental focus and how it applies to agility. Funny thing is, it sounds a lot like what I have learned from Susan Garrett about a dogs threshold. Those of us that have motivational issues or low drive dogs tend to live at the bottom or left side of that bell curve and have to find games, food, or toys that will work to move them towards the middle of the bell curve. Then there are those dogs that live at the other end of the curve. You all have seen those (I will stereo-type here--mostly Border Collies) dogs that are so wound up that they can't think.  Same for people. Meaning, we can use a bell curve for focus. To little at the end of the bell curve and you are unfocused, too much at the other end of that bell curve and you are hyper focused, but right in the middle at the top of that bell is just the right amount of mental focus that will allow you to execute all you need but still be able to think and adjust as needed. As with our dogs, it is a dance of trial and error to figure out how to maintain that homeostasis at the top of the bell for our mental focus. Its a good thing I like to dance :-)) because I have been getting a lot of practice lately.

Let's talk about what happens when you are under focused or are not focused. For example, you walked the course your allotted 8 minutes from your handling perspective but helped set bars, chatted with friends, discussed a tricky spot, and then started thinking about all the laundry that still has to be done at home. You go get your dog and are standing at the line and realize you have no idea what the course is. Or worse yet, you are in the middle of the course and can't remember where to go next. For a non-agility example, you just drove home from work and you can't remember any of the drive you just did. Kind of like arriving home on automatic pilot. You did it, you drove home but just can't recall any of the details of it. You were in a non-focused state of the task at hand (driving) busy thinking about all the other things that clamor for our attention in our daily lives.  Now this is different than having poor recall or memory abilities. Having walked the course 500 times with focus but you just can't remember it. That is a separate issue I will save for another post :-)

Hyper-focus can be just as detrimental but on the opposite end of our bell curve. When a person hyper focuses on a task they are unable to see the larger picture. You can only see the one small piece of the puzzle and therefore can not perform the task at hand. An extreme example, is some children with autism tend to hyper-focus. You tie their shoe but they are unable to cope because the shoe lace is not placed exactly as it should be. They have difficulty accepting that the task is complete because all they can see is one small part of the laces. For an agility example, I recently ran a course that had a tight wrap back to a jump. I became so hyper focused on the execution of that wrap (cuing the turn early, having a tight turn, not waiting for him and driving to the end) that I wrapped the wrong jump. I executed it one jump to soon. Thank goodness for my own sanity as soon as gave him our "go on" command he took an off course jump :-)  I was so hyper focused that I didn't even realize it until I left the ring and my daughter gleefully informed me that I missed a jump. (yes, mom's mess up too) "What, no I didn't...oh...."

Right in the middle of our bell curve, is where we need to be when walking the course then running the course. There are times during the day that we can enjoy being unfocused or we can hyper focus on a friend or activity out side the ring but we need to be able to bring ourselves up to that optimal state of focus as needed. How do we do that? Practice. Plain and simple. Fortunately, we use our focus skills all day long so you can practice even when at work or home.

First, you have to practice sustained focus or concentration. As an adult you should be pretty good at this already since it is a necessary skill for work and home life. There are tons of mental games and activities that you can do online or at home to sharpen those skills. It basically comes down to having the ability to continually redirect yourself back to what you are actively engaged in. The faster you can self redirect and for the length of time you can maintain it are the goals. This will allow you to improve the amount of time you can focus while walking your course or during your run. There are many external prompts you can use but I prefer internal since I always have those with me. I tend to use self talk. Yes, I am that weird person walking the course talking to myself. The physical formation of the words redirects me to my task and the auditory feedback (listening to myself) helps me to remember what I am doing. I will also use touch to help me when my focus is stretched to the max (will place my hand on my stomach to remind me to use my core muscles while concentrating picking up my feet for football runs). I am also one of those people that don't often volunteer to be a scribe for a ring. I know my limitations. I often will watch the run and not the judge :-) Sometimes I will purposely challenge myself but I warn the asst scribe and timer that I will need help and to redirect me back to the judge. (I tend to scribe for the beginner rings since the judges hands move more often so I have less time to zone out :-)

Then comes practicing the transition between the states of focus. Can you move from unfocused to hyper focus? Can you come down from hyper focus to the optimal state? How long does it take you? This is all important information that will help you when preparing for your run. If you know that you require about 10 quiet minutes to go from unfocused to optimal focus then you can build that into your pre-run routine so when you step to the line not only is your dog in an optimal state but so are you. For me, I prefer crating from my car. This gives me time to work on my focus state during my walk to and from the ring and car. You can practice changes of state while watching runs ring side. Can you go from not really paying attention to the run then watching for all the details and feeling the run along with them? How about hyper focusing on a contact zone only then switching to a conversation next to you then back again?

Can you walk and chew gum?
The last thing I wanted to talk about was split attention. In my opinion, this is another imperative handler skill and one I will forever be working on. Split attention is the ability to split your focus between competing stimuli. As a young girl learning to ride horses I can remember thinking there was so much to remember and do all at the same time! Heels down, legs straight, sit tall, chest out, arms bent, thumbs up, chin up. Do all that and focus on what the instructor was telling you and try doing something new.  Not unlike our agility classes now. Trying to keep an eye on your dog, keep track of where your going, and not trip over your feet (or equipment) as you execute that front cross :-) For me lately, I find that my attention is split between keeping one eye on my dog, executing my handling moves, and trying to continually re-evaluate my handling plan while on the course. I believe it is an excellent skill to be able to "save" a run by being able to "think on your feet"while in the middle of a run. Lately though, I have been overly focused on continually re-evaluating the dogs line and my handling choices during the run. I am beginning to cause other errors to happen. Case in point, I arrived at the A frame sooner than I planned so immediately started running through possible changes in the closing sequence that may give us tighter turns or a more efficient line, looking to shave off those precious seconds, and totally forgot to work the contact. In the split second I remembered it was to late. Oops.....  A lesson in managing my split attention learned.

The good news is all of these systems usually work together synergistically and most of the time we don't have to apply so much active thought to them. Yet, to get to a place where you don't have to think about it but just do it requires practice, patience, and errors. Also awareness of the systems and how they work. Now that you do, like me, together we can mutter our way around the course working our focus and split attention!


  1. Great post! I wish my young dog would master "split attention!" :)

  2. Very informative post, these are the Memphis dog trainers needed to have a desirable dog habits and behaviors. I have a dog, a terrier, and currently, I'm training him to use toilet and he is on his way to mastery of dog obedience skills.