In dog training, Eye Contact ( or “Focus” as some people call it) is a very important skill your dog needs to learn. We want to be able to ask our dogs to look at us and look away from any manner of distraction. It seems like a pretty simple task, but that’s not always the case!
Dogs do what works for them. If they get some sort of benefit or reward from an action, they’ll do it again! Watching squirrels is naturally fun. Watching a human’s boring face… not so much. But we can easily change that!
We need to build value in looking at our faces. There are a few different ways to train any behavior. You can FORCE it to happen, you can LURE it to happen, or you can WAIT for it to happen. For this exercise, we’re going to WAIT for it to happen. There is nothing inherently wrong with using a treat and luring your dog to look you in the eyes by taking a treat from their nose to your eyes (ensuring that they follow it, of course). However, I find that when a dog makes the choice on their own, the behavior or skill being learned is learned much faster and sticks around with much less maintenance. (In case you didn’t know…you have to keep training and practicing skills with your dog all the time, or they ‘forget’!)
We CAN put a “cue” on this later, such as “Look!” or “Focus!”. I prefer that we wait to do that until several weeks into training. Why? Because we want our dog to give us eye contact, whether we’re asking for it or not! The way we will be teaching this should lead to our dog pretty much boring a hole through our heads with their eyes!
How to Train:
1. Have a handful of treats ready and your dog in front of you in a low distraction environment.
2. Wait for your dog to give you eye contact. Do not say their name, make a noise, wiggle, or anything else to try to make your dog look at you. Simply wait.
3. When your dog gives you eye contact, CLICK and TREAT!
4. Stand still and wait again.
On average, it takes dogs two to three minutes (or less) to figure out that looking at your face produces treats!
Doggie Zen is a simple game to get our dog focused, even in the face of treats! Many people have experience with some form of this game, so this may be familiar. Doggie Zen teaches our dogs to look away from treats (or toys, later) and make eye contact with us. One thing that you will find different is that we will NOT be putting this “on cue” (meaning, we will not attach a command to this behavior). Eye contact will become a default behavior that your dog offers spontaneously.
Doggie Zen is a two-for-the-price-of-one exercise. It teaches your dog eye contact while also teaching them self-control. This is a great warm-up activity before training, walking, or playing with your dog. For dogs that are excitable, you can also incorporate biofeedback to create a calmer dog. Rewarding for not only eye contact, but eye contact with sleepy, droopy eyes will create a more zen-like state. Remember – rewarded behavior continues. The more we reward our dogs being calm (or even just looking calm), the more they will BE calm!
How to Train
This one is pretty simple!
Stand, with your dog seated in front of you. Hold a treat about 6 inches directly to the SIDE of your face, and wait for your dog to look away from the treat toward your face. If your dog jumps up, moves toward the treat, or in any other way tries to “help themselves” to the treat, put it behind your back and begin again. If your dog turns to your face, or just moves their eyes to the side towards your face, Mark and Reward with the treat in your hand.
In the beginning, reward any movement your dog makes away from the treat, even if it’s just an eye flicker away. You will continue to make this more difficult over time until your dog can make prolonged eye contact the second he sees the treat or anything else he wants.
I like to work in sets of 5. Each time you present the treat to the side of your face is a “trial”. If your dog is successful at looking away from the treat 4 out of 5 times or more, you are ready to make it more difficult by either waiting for a longer look or moving the treat slightly further away. Do not ask for both a longer look AND move the treat further away from your face. You only want to add one step at a time so you don’t go too fast and overwhelm your dog. We want to train with as few mistakes as possible!