Originally published in the July 2010 issue of Texas Dogs and Cats Magazine
Fido not listening to you? Won’t come when called? Drags you on leash? Basic obedience starts with a dog that will pay attention. While we can never know exactly what a dog is thinking, you can be sure a dog is thinking of you when he is looking you in the eye.
To teach your dog to look you in the eye, you will need a dog (J), leash, treats and a clicker. Put your dog on leash. Start your lessons in a boring location. It will be hard to get your dog’s attention in the middle of a party. You want your dog to look you in the eye, not look at a treat held near your eye. Have your treats down by your side, or even behind your back.
It is easier for most dogs to look at you if you are sitting. Wait. Sit up straight, some dogs will find it a bit intimidating if you lean over and stare. Be patient. It will take most dogs a few minutes to tear their eyes away from the luscious treats and focus on you. If you just cannot wait, you can make a little noise to get your dog’s attention. Stop using the noise as soon as possible.
When your dog, ever so briefly, looks in your eyes, press the clicker. Make sure you are still, not moving, when you punch the clicker button. Remain still for a short moment afterwards. Then give your dog a treat. Yeah! You did it! Remember, you click when the dog looks in your eyes. The click marks the behavior, and promises a treat. Repeat twenty five times. After you have practiced for several days, go to a different area of the house. Practice eye contact in every room in your house.
Make it a little harder for your dog to look at you. Hold a treat in your hand, with your arm stretched out to the side. Wait for your dog to look at you, not at the treat. Click when the dog looks you in the eye, pause and be still ever so briefly, then deliver the promised treat. Try holding the treat in each hand, clicking and then treating when your dog looks at your eyes.
Move your training to the backyard. Make sure your treats can compete with the sights and smells of the great outdoors. Use boneless, skinless chicken or turkey, or beef or cheese. Just like lifting a weight increases the strength of a muscle, performing a behavior and then getting a treat increases the strength of the behavior. Practice!
After your dog can look you in the eye fairly easily in the back yard, move to the front porch, and eventually around the neighborhood. Continue to practice this behavior several times a week.
Congratulations! You and your attentive dog are well on your way to a cooperative life together.
Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed
***Trainer’s tip: If your dog tends to jump up on you to get a treat, deliver the treat toward the ground. The dog will stay on the ground, where the treats arrive.