Make eye contact a habit and you and your dog will never look back!
The exercise of teaching eye contact helps the dog learn a fundamental behaviour that will keep the dog communicating with his/her owner for life!
This exercise goes hand-in-hand with the concept of Deference (deferring to the handler).
Eye contact instantly opens up a communication channel between you and your dog .
We want the dog to 'check in' with a look whenever he/she desires something. His/her ‘want’ may be a good thing or an undesirable thing but the point is that we want the dog to ask by looking directly at the handler.
For example, he may want to run over the field to another dog, he gives the handler eye contact and then the handler has the final say. The handler is in control and the dog is effectively asking with a fixed glance. We may say OK or we may deny the request and ask for a different behaviour instead.
It is never too late to teach this but as with most things it is better to teach it as soon as you get your puppy. The best way to teach this is to use your dog’s normal food. Putting food in a bowl is such a wasted opportunity. The food is a huge motivator and a primary reinforcer, so use it for training, especially at meal times. Hand feeding your dog strengthens the bond and provides a massive opportunity to reinforce any exercises or to teach new ones.
Feeding a good quality dry kibble makes using your dog’s normal food ration for training easier as it's simpler to manage and distribute.
1. Crouch down and show the dog a piece of food moving it from the dogs nose up to your eyes.
2. Be patient and move the food slowly.
3. Ignore any attempts to paw or jump up.
4. You are watching for that split second of eye contact. It may take a couple of goes but be patient.
5. For that split second your dog offers you that eye contact, mark it with a word like "Yes" (or click) and feed the food.
6. Repeat the exercise.
7. 'Eye Contact' should occur quicker this time. Keep repeating and at some point there will be a 'eureka moment' where the dog understands that to get to the food he must look you in the eye. It’s a fantastic moment.
8. Repeat about ten times per mealtime and always end on success.
When your dog has worked it out, start adding duration.
Get that eye contact and count to two before you mark it with a "Yes" or click and allow access to the food. Do ten reps of counting to two.
For the next mealtime repeat but count to four. Repeat and build during every mealtime. Once you get to around thirty seconds you’ll find the dog will start checking back with you very readily.
Life reward examples
In this exercise so far we’ve been controlling a resource, namely food. As a dog owner, you can also control every other resource and doing so enhances your status enormously in doggie eyes! So, perform the same incremental steps whenever your dog desires something that you can control.
Here is a further example. Before letting your dog into the garden, put your hand on the door handle and wait. Wait for that split second of eye contact, mark it with a "Yes" and open the door. It’s very easy. Build up duration just as you would have done with the food.
When your dog wants to be let off the lead to sniff a hedge, wait for the eye contact, mark it and unclick his lead. The reward for the dog is the 'life reward' of sniffing and being free.
Eye Contact – A training fundamental
The beauty of eye contact is that the dog will ask you for what he wants by looking at your face. It is rewarding for you because you get to see those doggy eyes and the communication between handler and dog flows. You both understand the rules.
Eye contact is fundamental to beginning your training because you need to have the dogs attention and focus. Also, we’re conditioning the dog so the look/check-in becomes a habit.
Hopefully you can see that feeding from a food bowl is a waste. Think of that time you could be bonding with your dog and training your dog, all vanished within 10-30 seconds! Instead use feeding time to build up this exercise and both you and your dog will never look back!