If I could pick one behavior that is most important to teach your dog, it would be eye contact. More importantly, it would be offered eye contact, in other words, you don’t cue it, but rather the dog does it on his own.
Eye Contact Starts Work
I use offered eye contact as a way for my dog to let me know he’s ready to work. Eye contact starts each chain of behaviors. I often will wait for eye contact, then ask the dog to set up in heel and go from there. Or I’ll wait for eye contact before I ask for a different behavior, like sit, touch, down, etc.
Eye contact is also really important for behaviors like fronts. If the dog is focused on your hands instead of your face, it’s going to be difficult for the dog to line up straight. If he comes in focused on your face, getting a straight front will be much more likely.
Eye Contact Shows the Dog is Paying Attention
Finally, dogs that are looking at us are paying attention. They are ready to receive a cue. They are less likely to be distracted by the environment if they are offering eye contact.
We need to show the dog that eye contact is valuable so that he will be more likely to offer it. The more the dog offers it, the more she gets rewarded, and the more likely you are to get eye contact in more distracting situations.
Clean Marking is Critical
Clean marking is always important in dog training, but especially at a time like this. If you say yes and move to reward at the same time, the dog is going to pick up on your body movement before the verbal and will be glancing toward your hand when you say yes. If this happens, you just marked your dog for looking away from you! Definitely not what we want.
In the following video, I am not doing a good job marking THEN moving to reward. When I slow the video down, do you see how I’m actually marking my dog looking away from me?? Not good, but SO incredibly common!
Now take a look at this video. Here I am thinking mark, pause, move to reward. Remember click THEN treat, not click AND treat.
I don’t mind that Excel is looking away AFTER I’ve said yes. What I’m concerned about is where he is looking WHEN I say yes. In the first video, when I marked the behavior, he was looking away from me. In the second video, he was looking right at me every time I said yes.
Now that you can see how important it is to mark THEN reward, let’s move on to the training part!
How to Teach
When I first start teaching eye contact, I bring the dog into a quiet low-distraction environment. I usually start with my hands behind my back so it’s easier for the dog to focus on my face without the distraction of treats in my hand. When the dog makes eye contact I mark with a verbal behavior while my entire body stays very still. After I’ve marked the behavior, I move to reward the dog.
In the beginning steps of training I will mark any eye contact, no matter how fleeting, but very quickly I would like the dog to really look at me, not just glance. If I’m struggling with getting duration, I will ignore the first quick glance, but mark the second one. Then I move onto marking the third quick glance. At this point the dog will usually start looking at you longer. Within a session or two I am waiting for 1-2 seconds of steady eye contact before I mark.
When the dog really understands eye contact with my hands behind my back, I will start putting them at my sides. I keep my hands low so I can really tell if my dog is looking at me or my hands. I continue to mark and reward eye contact. As the dog improves, I will start to put my hands in different positions, such as straight out from my body.
Here’s an example of me working with Excel, showing you how I’d progress. Excel went through these steps really fast since he knows the game, so make sure you don’t progress to the next step until your dog is solid.
If you take the time to teach eye contact now, it will pay off big time throughout your dog’s career!