With a world full of exciting distractions it can sometimes seem impossible to get your dog’s attention. Incorporating eye contact into daily activities is a great strategy for getting your dog to focus. By making eye contact a requirement of basic training, you can help your dog get into the habit of paying attention to you. Here are some activities you can practice with your dog at home:
1. Focus in a Sit
While working on “sit” with your dog, wait for your dog to make eye contact with you before treating. Have a treat pouch clipped to the back of your pants and only reach into it when you’re ready to treat. Ask your dog to sit. If your dog is looking at your treat pouch or somewhere else in the room, move your fingers up to your eyes or make a kissy noise. As soon as your dog makes eye contact, give your reward marker and treat.
2. The “T” Game
Start with your dog on leash and facing you. Step on the dog’s leash so she is not able to move away from you or jump up. Hold a delicious treat in your fist. Allow your dog to smell the treat so she knows it’s there. Then, while standing, hold your arm horizontal to the floor away from your body, as if you were making a “T” with your arm. Your dog may try to jump up to get the treat. She may also just stare at your hand. Wait for your dog to look away from the treat and make eye contact with you. It may only take a few seconds, or it may take a few minutes. If your dog is extremely focused on the treat, make a kissy-noise. Be patient.
Once your dog makes eye contact, give your reward marker (such as “yes!” or “good!”) and then give your dog the treat. Repeat this game several times. Once your dog gets the hang of it, try moving the treat to behind your back, directly above your dog, or play the game while you are sitting down.
At meal time, prepare your dog’s kibble in a measuring cup or tupperware container. Put your dog’s empty food bowl on the ground. Hold the container of kibble in your hand. Ask your dog to sit. Wait for your dog to make eye contact with you. When she does, give your reward marker and place about a quarter of your dog’s food in the bowl. Wait for her to finish. Do not pet or otherwise distract your dog while she is eating. Once she is finished, repeat the process until all of the food is gone.
NOTE: This is a great focus game to play if your dog eats her whole meal in one sitting. If you leave your dog’s food out for grazing throughout the day, she may not be as focused on you.
4. Focus before Going Outside
Practice on a day when you don’t have somewhere important to be. Before opening the door to go outside, wait for your dog to sit and make eye contact with you. For advanced focus, maintain eye contact while reaching for the doorknob and opening the door. If your dog breaks eye contact, close the door and start over. If your dog is extremely excited about being on leash and in front of the door, practice going through a less-exciting doorway in your house, such as into your bathroom or kitchen.
For more on polite door habits, check out this brief training video.
5. Focus on Walks
Once your dog is an expert at the above focusing games, try getting your dog’s focus on walks. A good way to practice is to ask for a sit at street crossings and intersections. Wait for your dog to make eye contact with you before crossing the street. This will help reinforce a pattern that when you stop, your dog should sit and look up at you, or we do not continue walking. Once she does look up at you, give your reward marker and continue walking. In this case, walking becomes the reward.