Something I've found time and time again is that when our dogs aren't sure about what they should be doing- they tend to become more reactive, more anxious and less focused. They need direction, they need to understand the goal, the end game - the why. Why are we at this new park? Why are we going over jumps? Why are we heeling randomly in a big building? Why am I sitting here while you chat with your friends and drink coffee?
Dogs love being able to predict what comes next. They learn very quickly when one thing predicts another. Dogs thrive on a certain level of consistency in life that they can look forward to. So it makes sense that we should teach our dogs both how to deal when the environment is different, and some skills that require an understanding of an overall process.
When Surly, my 10 year old cattle dog, started to learn agility- it wasn’t very pretty! She didn’t understand why we were gathered with a bunch of strange dogs, doing odd things. She did know that she loved the jumping, running, playing and the treats though! Surly was excited, but had no direction. What this meant was that between turns or when just finishing with an obstacle, she was ultra reactive! Little Surly would want to take off like a rocket to anything that moved- thinking 'this energy has to go somewhere!'
I opted to teach Surly the individual obstacles at home or in individual lessons, until we could do a few in a row Then, things started to click! We could run an agility course with increasing chaos going on. She knew the concept - we do one obstacle after another, running around together then I throw the ball. awesome!
Confidence learned from mastering a concept spills over into the rest of your pup’s life. Since most reactive or unfocused dogs have anxiety as a cause of their issues, gaining confidence overall can really help in day to day life. If you aren’t involved in something with your pup, it might be time! Just for fun agility, nosework, barn hunt, herding, competition obedience can all be great options.
Getting involved in dog sports isn’t necessary though - it can be as simple as teaching a few tricks, then practicing those tricks when/where your dog is nervous. Those fun tricks become the normalcy. If your dog likes tugging - then even just showing that ‘we’re here to tug!’ in new or odd situations can work.
Lastly, it’s always great to create an ‘operant’ dog - a dog who acts (operates) to have a consequence (reward) happen. Example: my dog wants the treats in my hand, but I’m not telling her anything. So she tries sitting, down, bark, then shake - when she finally gets the click and treat. ah, she thinks - I shake to get the treat! Practice training as many things as you can by shaping them (see 101 Things to Do With a Box for ideas how to start http://www.clickertraining.com/node/167). When our pups feel like they can act to change the situation for their better, it gives them control - control brings confidence! It also helps decrease frustration. Instead of waiting for what our pup wants, or being upset they don’t have it - they have the skills to actively work for it.
So start thinking of where/when your dog isn’t showing ideal behavior. Is it because they are anxious, not focused or reactive? If so, do they really understand why you're there? Think of things from their perspective - the world is much different from their perspective. Even something as simple as sitting at a cafe needs some normalcy for our pups. Set up things in life so your dog is rewarded for their good behaviors, so they know what is correct - and if they aren’t going to show good behavior, help them out!