< Updated 19APR19 >
OBJECTIVE: To teach your dog to look at you and make eye contact when given a single visual or verbal cue.
We teach this behavior for three reasons; 1) to get our dogs to focus on us so that we can more easily teach them, 2) to get our dogs to focus on us and to remain focused when distracted, and 3) to show our dogs that eye contact with us is safe and results in being rewarded.
Remember, for most dogs, direct eye contact is seen as being confrontational and something to be avoided. If your dog appears to be reluctant to make eye contact, please be patient while introducing this behavior. We also teach this behavior because it helps to train you the value of focusing on your dog. Lastly, I have found that a dog that has mastered the Attention behavior is quicker to learn the Heel and Leave It behaviors.
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 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. At least twenty pieces of kibble will come from your hands instead of the bowl. Follow this protocol:
- Select a quiet place with as few distractions as possible (no other pets, children, noises, ),
- 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, an area near a busy street, a schoolyard, ) and repeat steps 1 through 4.
Hopefully, by now, you have significantly increased your dog’s attention and willingness to focus on you, and you have learned the importance of giving your dog 100% of your attention while training.
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 your location. 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 tends to wander off, stand on your dog’s leash to keep them in place.
We do not use a verbal cue for this behavior until the dog is reliably responding to the visual cue in a wide variety of scenarios.
- Touch a treat to the dog’s nose and slowly move the treat so that it is right between your eyes. Hold the treat there and immediately click the instant your dog makes eye contact and then immediately give them the treat you had in your hand. Do this for about three repetitions. Note: Please do NOT taunt the dog by moving the treat back and forth.
- Without having a treat in your hand, bring your index finger up between your eyes and hold it in place, the treats are in your treat bag. Immediately click when your dog makes eye contact, and then reach into your treat bag and give your dog 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. Instead, we are cueing the action 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 duration’s, move back and forth between shorter and longer times. It is essential 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 to make eye contact.
- When your dog makes eye contact with you in a wide variety of environments, it is time to begin to work on getting and maintaining attention in the presence of distractions. We want to set our dog up for success so we will start with a low-level distraction at a distance where the dog is only minimally distracted. For purposes of providing an example, let’s say that your dog is distracted by people. Every time your dog sees a person they start to wag their tail and want to greet that person.
- Find a person that your dog will be happy to see and that will follow your instructions without improvising. If they cannot follow your instructions, find another person. You do not need the assistance of someone who will untrain your dog or teach them the wrong behavior.
- Arrange to meet that person in an area where you have successfully practiced attention with your dog without the presence of distractions. This might be at your home or could be somewhere else where you have had success with your dog.
- Arrive in the area and be standing in a predetermined location with your dog practicing attention as your friend arrives. Have them work with you at a distance where you will be able to maintain your dog’s attention. For some dogs, this meet be as little as 10 feet away, for others it may need to be fifty feet away. If your dog gets all worked up and will not focus you, have worked at too close of a distance. Go home and try again in a couple of days. If the dog will give you attention and maintain focus, work for about 5 minutes and then have your friend leave. Afterwards, do something fun that your dog enjoys as an extra reward.
- The next time you work with your dog, do the same as noted above but have your friend stand one foot closer. As long as you continue to have success, have your friend stand a foot closer each time you practice this behavior, as long as your dog does not get so distracted you cannot get them to focus on you.
- When your dog will give you attention and hold it with another person five feet away, it’s time to practice this with another person. The number of people you practice with is entirely up to you; however, the more you work on this behavior, the more you will benefit.
- Another way to work on teaching attention while your dog is being distracted by people is to find a large parking lot with a store, office or school where distraction will be present. Start working with your dog when the least amount of distractions are likely to be present. For example, when the facility with the parking lot is closed. Work as far away from the facilities entry as you can, rewarding your dog for giving and maintaining attention. As long as you and your dog are being successful, gradually change the time you are practicing to one when more people are present.
- It seems to be human nature to be patient and to want to like “one giant leap for mankind.” Unfortunately, that often causes our training plan to blow-up in our face. You are much more likely to succeed in training attention if you take baby steps to ensure your success.
- When your dog reliably offers the attention behavior in several different environments, while in the presence of distractions, you can start to add a verbal cue to the behavior. As with all cues, we want something short, typically no more than one syllable, and a verbal cue that does not sound anything like any of your other cues. I prefer the word “Look.”
- To introduce the verbal cue, say the word “LOOK” right before offering the visual cue. When your dog makes eye contact with you click and treat. Practice presenting the verbal cue in a wide variety of environments, eventually slowly adding higher levels of distraction.
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