5113757261_e11ebf5bbb_zThe dog bounced in place, body quaking with excitement, invisible springs attached to his four legs which regularly launched him straight up until his nose met hers.

His owner giggled to herself and then said, “Alright, alright already. I’m getting the leash as quickly as I can!”

The dog bounded and danced as his owner fumbled to retrieve the leash from the closet, her dog’s massive body occasionally colliding with her arm, knocking the leash from her hands as it did.

Finally, leash in hand, she turned to face the dog, ready to tackle the seemingly impossible job of attaching the lead to the collar.

The dog wiggled and squirmed, and as she grabbed his collar, he rolled onto his back, making the task of attaching the leash even more daunting. She burst into a fit of laughter in response to the dog’s antics, giving him a good belly rub and then asking politely for him to stand so she could make the attempt again.

After some amount of fumbling, the leash was on, and in an instant the dog was out the door, dragging his owner behind him as he raced to excitedly sniff the nearest tree.

As I watched the scene unfold, I couldn’t help but smile. The two were obviously head over heels for one another, and the dog’s enthusiasm for life was catching.

“He’s the happiest dog I know,” I told my friend as I recounted the day’s events, revisiting my training session with the boisterous golden retriever who found everything in his life to be THE…MOST….AMAZING….THING…..EVER.

“So what’s the problem?” she inquired. She’s used to the fact that I work primarily with dogs who have serious aggression issues or dogs being trained for work.

“That IS the problem,” I laughed, serious in my statement but finding humor in the situation nonetheless.

The dog had such a zest for life and was so boisterous and excited about EVERYTHING that he became impatient. And as his enthusiasm was catching, his impatience was rewarded….over and over again.

He’s excited and jumps, his owner hurries to get his leash.

He’s so over stimulated he can’t sit still and flops on his back….his owner gives him a belly rub.

He darts out the door, pulling to the nearest tree….his owner follows his lead.

But inevitably, his zest for life and reinforced impatience is not met with the same adoration from others as it is from his owner. What is tolerable (and even cute) for her translates into bad manners around other people. Jumping is rude, and pulling is uncomfortable. And as his owner now attempts to restrain him, holding tight and preventing that which she had so willingly and so overtly rewarded in the past, he gets frustrated. And as his excitement turns to frustration, an entire slew of behavioral problems emerge, including a bad case leash aggression.

I stared blankly at my computer screen. I knew I needed to write another article. My editor was leaving town and I was on a deadline to get a blog post to her before she left. My brain turned over the events from the week, replaying my training scenarios and trying to come up with something interesting to write about.

I had hit a brick wall.

My thoughts raced to the last few posts I made, to some training videos I watched, and back to my own training programs that I had been working throughout the week.


I was stuck, and I couldn’t focus.

As I tried to think of a topic, tried desperately to come up with something I wanted to talk about, my fingers drifted down to my mouse, and I began scrolling aimlessly about the web.

I popped open Facebook and got lost in the sea of newsfeeds, the latest training videos, and video of tortoises attacking blueberries (yep, it’s adorable – look it up). Finally, I resigned myself to the fact that no inspiration was going to strike, so I dove head first into social media, alternating between the brightly lit screen of my computer, and the latest crime drama playing out on the TV on the other side of the room.

Like the dog in the story, who was repeatedly rewarded for impatience, I drifted off, losing focus and reinforcing my own loss of attention with social media and mindless TV.

Are You Reinforcing Impatience?

Whether it’s with our dogs, or in our own lives, we tend to have a huge tendency to reinforce impatience, rewarding and perpetuating it inadvertently as we do.

IMG_1940In our dogs, over-excitement is cute, wiggling butts are adorable, and jumping up is no big deal….most of the time. But at some point, that excited energy becomes undesirable. Perhaps jumping on you is okay, but jumping on a neighbor is “bad manners”. Perhaps dragging you down the road for a good sniff doesn’t bother you….until your shoulder is sore or you’ve landed yourself square on the pavement from a quick pull in the wrong direction. And perhaps squirming when a collar is attached is cute…funny even. Until you’ve had a bad day at work or your schedule is tight and you just need to go. Then, the cuteness seems to fade, leaving your dog sunk in his old routine, but being met with a new and uncomfortable response.

Or how about in your own life? Social media streams are fun, mindless entertainment that helps us stay connected by never really being connected. It’s all fun and games until you slack on your work because you got stuck in the latest debate about balanced dog trainers. Television is an awesome way to decompress after a long day, until you replace healthy habits like exercising and at-home cooking with mind numbing shows. And cell phones are crucial, until you can’t focus on a friend or family member for longer than 5 minutes without checking your messages.

Rewarding impatience and lack of focus can seem fun….until it’s not.

And as we perpetuate over excitement and impatience in our dogs by giving in to what we think they want, we create an over-aroused and frankly, unhealthy state of mind. And as we perpetuate impatience in ourselves by numbing our minds with social media, cell phones, and TV, we too perpetuate an unhealthy state of mind….where focus is hard to come by and getting distracted is regularly rewarded.

Focus is a Muscle

For a moment, let’s think of our focus as a muscle. This can be applicable to our dogs and to ourselves. When we repeatedly reward our dogs for a lack of focus, for impatience, or for over excitement, our dogs lose the ability to focus. Only after the muscle is worked, exercised, and strength is built back up can we reap the benefits of hard work done.

Same can be said for us. As we regularly numb our minds, our focus “muscles” become weak. We haven’t exercised them, so it becomes tricky to rely on them to get anything done. When those muscles become doughy from lack of exercise and use, and all of the sudden we call on them to do some pretty heavy lifting, we are met with an injury in the form of frustration and irritation.

Enter neuroscience. The “muscle” analogy can be compared to the way our brains establish neural pathways. When we experience new things, we create new neural pathways. When information travels the same neural pathway over and over (habits), those neural pathways get embedded deeper into the brain and inevitably get “stuck”. The older we get, the more neural pathways we have, and the deeper habits become buried – making them more challenging to break.

Our brain is “inherently lazy”, writes Tara Swart, a senior lecturer at MIT, in her book Neuroscience for Leadership, and will always “choose the most energy efficient path” if we let it.

The same can be said for our dogs. When we create a habit in our dogs around impatience, and strengthen it through reinforcement, the neural pathway becomes deeply embedded and hard to change. The dog’s brain becomes lazy, choosing the simplest path via the existing neural pathways already in place. As a result, the focus “muscle” becomes weak and behavior change is more difficult to come by.

How to Build your Focus Muscles

Whether you’re dealing with your dogs or dealing with yourself, here are some simple “exercises” you can do to replenish your lost focus.

  1. Quit Rewarding Impatience – Impatience should be worked through, not rewarded by quitting or caving. If your dog is over excited and behaving impatiently, giving in to his impatience to get the behavior to stop is the quickest way to trouble. Same with ourselves. If we become impatient and we quit to peruse social media or any other form of sensory stimulation, we’ve rewarded our impatience, burying our neural pathway even deeper and making the habit harder to break.
  2. Find Healthy Behaviors – If either you or your dog are suffering from a lack of focus, check out your own habits. Is your time spent on things that are productive to building and reinforcing and habit of focus, or are you spending it on things that cater to scattered brains and instant gratification? Same goes for your dog. Check out the activities you two spend time on together and see if they are inadvertently driving his excitement and arousal, or if they are helping him build up his focus and patience.
  3. Go Slow – When building any new muscle, slow and steady will always be the best approach. If you try to make your over excited dog patient over night, you’ll run into problems, so be sure to take things slow. His focus muscles haven’t been worked much so you don’t want to push too hard. Same for you. If you are impatient and can’t focus, don’t try focusing for hours on end just to fix the problem. It takes time to build up your focus muscles so don’t rush the process. Regular successes will strengthen your neural pathways, and successes will be more prevalent if they are readily achievable.

Shank - Malinois TrainingIn both dog training and in our own lives, impatience abounds. Focus muscles are regularly neglected, and it can be tricky to get them back after they’ve gotten out of shape.

Now, I’m not saying your dog can never be excited. And I for sure am not saying never to use social media or watch TV. Instead, choose to be in control of how much you are consuming and how you are stimulating yourself. Don’t just act on impulse, but act with intention, and empower your dog to do the same. It’s AWESOME for your dog to be excited in things like obedience, or when you are having a good and productive game of tug. And in your life, it’s great if you can decompress with your favorite show and stay connected on social media. Just don’t make it a way of life. And if you find your focus muscles getting weak, take some time to re-evaluate and put a plan in action to build them back up.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to get off my computer and work on my focus muscles. And later, Sweet Baby Shank, my little riot dog is going to work his too!

Read more about building new neural pathways as we get older HERE.

Meagan Karnes
Meagan Karnes

Meagan has been training dogs professionally since 2002, most recently working with private security, military and law enforcement to provide K9s for high level applications. She owns both The Collared Scholar, an online dog training academy, and 690 Security Services, a company that trains and deploys Executive Security and Protection K9s to private customers. She recently partnered with both Average Frog and SM Leaders, who repurpose the proven performance principles of the Navy SEALs for individuals and organizations.

    4 replies to "Act with Intention: Building Focus in our Dogs, and in Ourselves"

    • Janet

      Awesome article

    • Roswitha Bed

      I am updating my thoughts about dogs, mainly my boisterous young Australian Kelpie. And your articles are giving me back some buried knowledge and understanding. Thank you so much for sharing your expertise in a way I can easily relate to.

    • dawn

      I have one dog that waits by the door, with practiced patience. I have one that barely waits by the door. Partly because I myself have been too lazy to wait before giving a release and then opening the door to watch her zoom out with shear joy. I knew I was not doing her any favors. Thanks for reminding me.

    • Elle

      This is very helpful, especially for my puppy, thanks! Love your posts

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