IMG_1885A few summers ago, my parents purchased a new German Shepherd puppy named Heidi. Heidi turned out to be a handful, as we soon learned that she was cleverer and more enthusiastic than any of our previous family dogs. For the next few months, we learned how to train a highly intelligent puppy to be obedient without being neurotic, to be playful without using her canine cuspids (ha, geddit?) to greet people, and to accept us into her “pack” (terminology used by the breeders themselves). As she grew, Heidi’s attention span doubled from about two seconds to four. In order to get Heidi to stay focused on learning how to sit, lay down, and heel, the breeders encouraged us to do two things: 1. Use little bits of hot dog as treats. 2. Keep the treats at our eye level and give Heidi the command, “EYES”, every time her attention slipped away to the endlessly more amusing pinecones in our backyard. The moments when Heidi successfully looked us in the eye before learning a new command, her success rate – and hot dog rewards – skyrocketed.

Having next to zero previous training working with patients, performing intraoral and extraoral exams, navigating Axium’s labyrinth, or staying afloat with lectures and lab work, second year of dental school is enough to make me feel uncannily like an untrained German Shepherd puppy. Dental school (the obedience training program) is meant to teach us dental pups how to be competent without overstepping our limitations, to be affable with patients without showing our frustrations, and eventually to be accepted into a highly respected and vital healthcare profession (our very own dental “pack”). As we graduate from first year to second year to third and fourth, our attention spans (hopefully) lengthen from about two hours to ten.

The analogy came full circle to me while listening to Dr. Sutton lecture: “Keep your eyes on me. That’s all you have to do. If you keep your eyes on mine, and your attention on what I’m doing, you will have no choice but to absorb at least eighty percent of what I’m saying. I just need your eyes.” At a time when everything we’re taught is new information and each tidbit could be beneficial for future success in clinic, I’ll gratefully take eighty percent of these dental school “hot dogs” – the skills that can lead to better patient care. While it’s easy to be distracted by fatigue, e-mails, Facebook (heaven forbid), and the Colorado Quickset blog during class, it’s just as easy to keep my eyes on the doctor standing at the front. The game gets easier still when I’m learning in the clinic setting -- undistracted by my shiny computer screen.

Whenever I find my focus slipping because I’ve been sitting in class for six straight hours, all I have to do is think of Heidi’s eyes looking up at me, eager to learn something new, and I am reminded how indispensable her attention is for her success. Attention is simple. If it works for a dog (who is undoubtedly smarter than I am), I trust that it can work for me too.