Eye Contact and Focus; a Behavior Broken Down
One of THE number 1 things I refer to in dog training, whether it is basic or advanced training is eye contact and focus.
Eye contact and focus is a key behavior in and of itself.
It is also crucial for good heeling and leash manners but that is more of a complex behavior because it relies on more than one thing, giving eye contact, being in heel position, moving, and often ignoring things going on in the background.
So first, let’s start off with basic eye contact and focus.
You can add more complex behaviors as your dog is successful and moves along in his training.
Right now it is crucial to build a strong foundation of eye contact!
I start with puppies as young as 8 weeks, getting them to show me this behavior.
It truly is the foundation of my obedience and almost everything I do revolves around it to some degree.
I often get asked, why should I teach my dog to give me eye contact?
There are several reasons actually.
If he is nervous; eye contact and staring at you can be calming for dogs.
If you have a dog that is dominant and wants to be in charge, eye contact is a good way to reinforce that you are the leader.
Eye contact and focus REQUIRES your dog to ignore everything else!
Your dog cannot stare at you, while barking, lunging and looking at something else! Often, my dogs have no idea what is going on around them because they are too busy staring into my eyes for a reward. This allows me to take them many places and work around other dogs because they have another coping skill. Instead of staring at another dog (bad behavior) they are staring at me and ignoring everything else!
And, if you ever plan to compete; eye contact and focus can be crucial to your success.
It is a basic behavior that can get more and more complicated as your training progresses.
What You Need
- Your dog
- A leash
- Great treats or toys
- A clicker
- Your eyeballs
Get your dog and put him on a leash if you so desire. He doesn’t have to be on a leash as long as he won’t wander away.
Put some great treats in both hands and a clicker in one if you are clicker training.
Show your dog that you have treats in BOTH hands by letting him smell your hands and the treats; and then bring both hands up by your eyes.
Your dog is probably going to go from looking at one hand, to the other; from one to another (because he knows they hold the treats) then he is probably going to get irritated and STARE into your pupils; it is at this exact moment that you want to click, praise and treat!
Try to wait and make sure that his pupils meet your pupils since THIS is the behavior you want to reinforce.
Looking at “my face” is not good enough for me! I want a dog that stares into my eyeballs; this way I can see exactly what he is looking at!
Frustration usually leads to the behavior in the beginning, and then you can quickly ask for it by giving it a command.
Be patient and don’t give in too early or you won’t have a dog that truly understands the concept.
It can be common for your dog to run through a gamete of behaviors if he has previous training and this is new to him. Ignore him if he lays down, barks, or otherwise acts frustrated. Wait until those eyes meet yours and click!
If he absolutely WON’T stare into your pupils you can do some cheating in the beginning.
If you put a treat in your mouth, he will likely look at your face so that you can reward him.
You can also spit treats from your mouth at him so that he will look up at you.
I don’t prefer these methods because I want a dog that looks directly into my pupils and doesn’t just vaguely look at my face.
I do, however, realize that some dogs are uncomfortable establishing direct eye contact so these tactics may be needed in the beginning.
But work toward actual pupil to pupil contact!
Once your dog understands the behaviors and becomes reliable you can add a command to the behavior.
I use “READY” because in competition when the judge says “Are you ready?” I can kind of cheat and say “Ready!” while still giving a command to my dog to tell him what to do!
Once he understand the command; I begin to proof his understanding and its meaning.
I wiggle my hands up and down with treats in them and only reward him if he continues to stare at me.
If he breaks I can choose to tell him “No” or “Wrong” or “Ehh” so he knows that behavior is wrong and won’t be rewarded or I can simply wait for him to do what he has learned. Either way is acceptable and I do either depending on the learning level of the dog. I would never tell a puppy “wrong” as it might confuse and frustrate him; but I might tell my 2 year old female when she makes a mistake so she can stop whatever it was and move on to a new behavior, but she knows the game!
Once my dog has mastered ignoring my hands waving about, I will add more and more distractions; throwing toys, jumping, walking, letting another dog into the room… whatever the distraction I want my dog to be able to keep and maintain eye contact.
Then we will extend the time that he holds it; and finally ask for it in different environments (inside, outside, front yard, car, church parking lot).
Your dog should truly understand that “Ready” or “Watch” means to give you eye contact no matter what and to SUSTAIN it until you tell him otherwise.
Use GREAT treats and reward for a job well done and do this often!
I often make my puppies work for their meals while giving me eye contact!
I made my 16 week old puppy give me sustained eye contact outside of a boarding kennel the other day. He was not allowed to watch the barking running dogs, he was rewarded for ignoring everything and just staring at me!
In order for your dog to succeed in the real world you must train often and work in more and more difficult environments!
I have been a professional dog trainer and pet sitter for over 20 years. I am a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, through the international Certification Counsel of Professional Dog Trainers. I have trained and worked with police, Schutzhund and personal protection dogs. I trained Assistance Dogs in a men’s prison and ran my own nonprofit organization to take adult dogs from shelters and to train them to assist children and adults with disabilities, at no charge to my clients. My nonprofit organization and I were nominated for several awards of merit and even made the front page of the Denver Post. I was a veterinary technician for many years, where I learned about all aspects of health and preventative medicine. I have trained and worked with exotic animals and cheetahs. I introduced a temperament testing program in my local shelter and sat on the board of directors. I volunteered with my dog “Mr. Snitch” and helped local children learn to read. I have attained obedience titles and several blue ribbons. I am constantly in search of ways to continue my education and excellence when it comes to animals, their behavior and their health.