Attention is the foundation of most things you’ll do with your dog. If your dog is busy looking at everything except for you, he’ll have a pretty hard time walking in heel, holding a sit, or performing skills in a distracting environment.
Making direct eye contact isn’t necessarily a natural, easy thing for dogs to do. Some dogs are very sensitive to it, so go slow and make sure you aren’t unintentionally intimidating your dog! Invite eye contact by keeping your eyes soft and your gaze natural…staring at your dog while leaning over him isn’t very inviting. If your dog actively avoids eye contact, or you can’t remember your dog ever offering it, you may need to start with your dog looking in your direction or just at your face, rather than making eye contact.
To build a strong foundation of attention, start with this exercise.
Skill Building: Attention
Location: Low-distraction, such as your kitchen or living room
Supplies: One dog (this is not the time to work multiple dogs), 10 tasty treats, and a clicker (or just be prepared with your handy marker word)
What to do:
- Sit or stand and say nothing.
- Do nothing.
- Find your zen place.
- Be quiet. Soften your body language and your gaze.
- Bear with me…I promise this will work!
- The second your dog glances at you, say “yes!” or click and treat. I don’t care if it’s a quick, barely there glance, just mark and treat. Do this 10 times, then take a break.
When you’re successful in your low distraction environment, move to a different room, and then eventually move your practice to new places with more distractions. Keep your dog successful, by increasing difficulty slowly. You can also start building in duration, so that your dog can maintain eye contact longer.
Voila, you have now started building a foundation of attention, and you’ve taught your dog that checking in with you pays really well.
People often ask why I don’t use a command like “watch me” or “look at me.” I really don’t think it’s necessary, and it’s yet another word to remember. I want my dogs to know that it’s always safe to look at me, and that it’s worth it to them to check in because I pay really well. Of course, they know their names and in high distraction times, their name does mean “look at me,” but it’s important for me to avoid nagging my dogs. I’d rather wait for them to choose to look at me then beg them to. Imagine how you’d feel if someone was poking you over and over again, and saying “hey! hey! HEY!” constantly. You’d probably get pretty annoyed. You’d also probably look at the person, but you wouldn’t feel great about it. You’d be doing it to get them to stop bothering you. Don’t be annoying…instead, be a quiet, patient, generous person who pays well.