The importance of attention
As a public school teacher, my students would often comment that I had eyes in the back of my head because I always knew what they were up to. Having eyes in the back of your head would be really useful for service dog handlers. However, unlike other dog training activities, service dog handlers are not focused on their dogs while they work. A service dog handler is going about their daily life with the dog. This is very different as compared to handlers competing with dogs in dog sports, for example.
There are many ways to teach dogs to remain focused on their work even though the owner is distracted. A simple training strategy I often use is to work in front of a reflective window or mirror. This allows me to click and reward the dog for checking in or for performing a desired behavior while I am not looking at the dog.
Attention around dogs
It is common for a service dog to notice another dog or another distraction before the owner does. Teaching the dog to check in with the owner when the dog sees another dog can be invaluable. Whenever my dog sees another dog, I mark and reward attention. I use food as well as non-food rewards at times. My dogs can earn the opportunity to greet one of their canine friends (at an appropriate time and location of course) by checking in with me first. Yes, this behavior requires persistence, but given the likelihood of a service dog encountering another service dog when working is very high, so it’s worth it to take the time to train this behavior.
The big picture
A dog’s ability to pay attention to the owner is impacted by many factors. Dogs that are excited, fearful, or stressed will have difficulty paying attention to their owners. Building a dog’s confidence and helping dogs relax in different settings will improve the dog’s ability to focus on the owner too.
There are so many wonderful ways to teach attention using reward-based methods, please feel free to share one of your favorite strategies!