OBJECTIVE: To teach your dog to look at you when given a single visual or verbal cue and that it is safe and rewarding to do so. Remember, for most dogs, direct eye contact is confrontational and something to be avoided so if your dog appears to be reluctant to make eye contact have patience while introducing this behavior.
We teach the ATTENTION behavior because a dog that pays close attention to you and will make direct eye contact is a dog that will be easier to train. This exercise serves two very useful purposes: 1.) It trains your dog to focus on you, and 2.) It trains you to focus on your dog.
The best way to establish a solid foundation for the ATTENTION behavior is with the hand-feeding program outlined below. The more distractible your dog is, the more you will benefit from taking the time to go through the hand-feeding process. Our Cairn Terrier, Gus, had always been very distracted by vehicles, especially large trucks. I used the hand-feeding program with him to improve his attention. By the 14th day, we were able to sit on our front porch, which is on a very busy street, and Gus would remain focused on me rather than pay attention to all the vehicles whizzing by. To his last day, attention remained one of his strongest behaviors.
Building Attention through Hand Feeding
If you have a dog which has a hard time remaining focused on you try hand feeding him for a few weeks. Instead of placing your dog’s bowl on the floor, you are going to sit down on the floor with the bowl in your lap. Every piece of kibble will come from your hands. Follow this protocol:
- Select a quiet place with as few distractions as possible (no other pets, children, noises, etc.),
- Take a handful of kibble and offer it to your dog, allowing him to eat out of your hand. Do this for his entire ration of kibble.
DAYS 2 & 3
- Go to your quiet place. Take a handful of kibble and hold it in a closed fist in front of your dog, waiting for him to make eye contact. When he does so, allow him to eat out of your hand. Do this for his entire ration of kibble.
DAYS 4 through 7
- Go to your quiet place. Take a handful of kibble and hold it in a closed fist in front of your dog, waiting for him to make and maintain eye contact for at least 3 seconds. When he does so, say “Take It” and then allow him to eat out of your hand. Slowly increase the duration of eye contact required, but no more than 5 to 8 seconds. Do this for his entire ration of kibble.
DAYS 8 through 10
- Go to a place with a low level of distractions and repeat steps 1 through 4.
DAYS 11 through 13
- Go to a place with a moderate level of distractions and repeat steps 1 through 4.
DAYS 14 through 16
- Go to a place with a high level of distractions (park, area near a busy street, school yard, etc.) and repeat steps 1 through 4.
Hopefully by now you have greatly increased your dog’s attention and willingness to focus on you.
Putting ATTENTION on Cue
The ATTENTION behavior becomes even more useful when you can get your dog to offer the behavior when you request it.
When you start working on attention do NOT concern yourself with your dog’s position (sit, down, stand, etc.) or where your dog is in relation to you. Start in a room with no distractions and concentrate all of your efforts on the specific behavior of getting the dog to look at your face and make eye contact. If your dog has a tendency to wander off, stand on your dog’s leash to keep them in place.
- Touch a treat to the dog’s nose.
- Move the treat so that it is right between your eyes. Immediately click and treat the instant your dog makes eye contact. Do this for about 3 repetitions. Note: If your dog appears to be only focusing on the treat or the clicker, keep a clicker and treat in each hand. Hold your hands out at your sides and when your dog makes eye contact, click and treat. Randomly choose which hand you click and treat from. Do not reward the dog for looking at your hands or your treat bag.
- Bring your index finger up between your eyes and hold it in place. Immediately click when your dog makes eye contact, and then give him a treat. Do this for about 3 to 5 repetitions.
- Move your body slightly so that you are in a different position relative to your dog, repeat step 3, clicking and treating the instant your dog makes eye contact. Remember, we are no longer luring the behavior with a treat at this point, rather cueing it with a visual cue of the index finger between your eyes. We are still however clicking and treating each success.
- Start to work towards longer times of making eye contact (2 seconds, 5 seconds, etc.). As you work towards longer durations, move back and forth between shorter and longer times. It is important to vary the amount of time to keep the dog interested and to make sure the dog will succeed. Note: Do not attempt to hold contact for longer than 8-10 seconds as this is a may make some dogs uncomfortable and cause them to look away.
- Continue to work on the behavior in different environments. Situate yourself so that at times the dog has to turn their head around to you in order to make eye contact.
- When the dog offers the behavior reliably in several different environments, say the word “LOOK” right before they offer the behavior and click and treat.
In a few rare cases, you may find that you have a dog that acts as if you were invisible. In this case you may need to shape the Attention behavior, clicking and treating for even slightly looking in your direction.
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