Teaching Your Dog Drive, Eye Contact and Focus for More Leash Skills
This is part 3 of a 4 part series of teaching your dog how to listen and obey you, without pulling while he is on a leash. If you didn't read my first two installments please do so first here: The Premise of the Magical Dog Leash and The Magical Dog Leash Part 2: Finding Heel
In my opinion, Drive and Focus are essential to good dog training and leash skills.
For those of you who are not familiar with the terms I first want to break them down for you so that you can understand what I, and others are talking about when we use these words.
Drive: There are several types of “drives” in dog training; play/prey drive and fight/defensive drives. When I write articles about drive, I am referring to the play/prey drive function that is innate with most dogs.
Most dogs have some kind of play or prey drive. When they see a small critter running their automatic response is to give chase and play. Even if they don’t want to chase animals they may pounce, bite and squeak toys!
The nice thing about this “drive” is that you can increase it, decrease it and learn to control it.
If you have a dog with low prey/play drive you can increase it by frustrating him a bit and teaching him to chase toys, tugs, and balls on a string often keeping them a just barely out of reach for a while before allowing him the reward of catching the “prey”.
- Frustration causes an increase in drive whether that drive is for a toy or food motivator.
- Constant playing, food and immediate access to the reward will decrease drive in your dog.
If you have a dog with CRAZY high prey/play drive (like my dogs) you can take it down a few notches and teach them to lower their drive and control themselves in order to play with you and/or you can reward them more often instead of frustrating them. Instead of teasing, flinging and chasing these dogs need to be taught more obedience in order to harness their play drive! I don’t need to increase my dogs’ prey drive!
Eventually whether you are increasing or decreasing your dogs drive (perhaps dependent on the situation) you will learn just how to control your dog when he is at
his utmost excitable level!
I have people who’s dog have trouble learning to play and they therefore have trouble increasing drive with their dog, if you are in that boat click here.
I have had people who also argue that there is NO WAY they want to increase their dog’s play or chase drive! I completely understand what they are saying, they feel like their dog is already out of control, but the point to this is that by playing with your dog in drive you are learning to control his drive and he is learning to control his impulses. This ability to control his own wants and impulses is crucial.
This will help you when your dog is distracted by neighbors, kids, bunnies, and anything else he might want to chase or play with while you are out walking.
My dogs are very, very high drive dogs, they want to play and chase almost constantly, but the reason I am so successful with dog training is that I learn to control them while they are at their utmost excitable and uncontrollable. I teach them that in order to get what they want (the game) they must listen to and obey me. This gives me dogs that, after they learn the terms of playtime, are willing to ignore almost anything in order to get what they want!
When you are on a walk or a hike with your dog, your ultimate goal will be to control him no matter what the conditions and so by playing some games and teaching him to control his urges you are setting yourselves up for success later!
For help teaching your dogs “Drive” please refer to my former articles. Teaching your dog to Retrieve using his Play Drive, Building Your Dog’s Drive in Preparation for Obedience and Training Your Dog in Drive.
Play and “Drive” teaches you to control the excitement level of your dog and “Focus” will give you control of what your dog is looking at, at any given time.
Focus: is eye contact and attention.
I teach all of my dogs to give me eye contact on command. I want them to learn to ignore EVERYTHING else that is going on and give me attention when I ask for it, no matter what.
Not only is this great for distractions on a walk, this is also critical for nervous or shy dogs. If my dog is fearful of whatever (leaf blower, dog, human, etc.) I can give him the command to give his focus to me and this therefore helps to distress and calm him. But for this article we will focus on how this helps with the distractions that life provides.
If you are out walking and your dog sees something that excites him (a skateboarder, another dog, a cat, whatever) you can ask him to ignore it by giving you eye contact. If he is looking at you and giving you his full attention, he can’t look at or pay attention to anything else!
But, this is a foundation that needs a lot of work, time, and praise! In order for you to be successful in times of distraction you must again build a firm foundation. I can take my dogs to the dog park and ask them at any given time to come over and give me eye contact and ignore every other dog in the park, even the ones sniffing or jumping on them…that is good control! And, if they listen to me and give me what I want they can again go and play with their friends.
What You Will Need
- Your dog’s favorite toy
- Yummy soft treats (pea sized or smaller)
- Your dog
- Lots of Patience!
If you are using “drive” training you will mostly be utilizing your dog’s favorite toy. For “drive” training you don’t need a clicker as the delivery of the toy and your voice are the reward. It is difficult to click and then quickly deliver your dog’s toy fast enough to build or reinforce drive. But it is ESSENTIAL to use a marker with your voice so your dog knows what he was doing when he got his toy. I say “YESSSS” then deliver the toy.
If you are using treats I would recommend using the clicker and your marker word to mark the correct moment that your dog’s eyes reach your pupils.
Using the Toy
Remember that this toy is special and cannot be used or played with at anytime. This is your toy that you keep hidden and away from your dog until it’s time for training. It is not special if he has access to it anytime!
- With your dog sitting or standing in front of you hold the ball or toy away from your body, in your palm (not dangling) and keep it completely still.
- Your dog will probably focus on it, jump, bark and do just about anything to get you to throw or activate his ball for him.
- Be patient! You can win this game if you are patient!
- Stand completely still and keep your eyes focused on his face.
- Eventually he should give up on all other behaviors and he will stare straight at your face because he is completely frustrated that you won’t throw his ball.
- The MOMENT he stares up at you mark that behavior with your marker “YES” or “GOOD” or your clicker and throw his ball or let him jump up and grab it.
- Continue quietly and patiently playing this game.
- He will quickly learn to stare up at you and give you eye contact.
- As he becomes successful add a command “watch me” “watch” or whatever command you desire to let him know what he is doing. Eventually you will be able to ask for this behavior.
- Get some absolutely scrumptious treats and put one in each hand.
- With your dog sitting or standing in front of you show him that you have a treat in each of your hands then bring your hands up to your face but not too close to your eyes.
- Be patient! Say nothing!
- Your dog will undoubtedly look from one hand to the other and back and forth until he is totally frustrated at which time he will stare at you!
- At the MOMENT his pupils hit yours click and treat!
- Continue doing this until he gets the idea to stare at you intensely, then and only then may you add a command “watch” “watch me” etc.
Some people cheat by spitting food or holding the treat close to the eyes in order to force the dog to look at the face. But, I don’t think your foundation will be as strong! Instead of teaching your dog to stare at your eyes you are teaching him that “face” is enough and it will be harder for you to determine (later) what your dog is really looking at!
But, as always do, what you need to; to make this all work!
Practice, practice, practice!
At first you will begin in a small secluded less distracted area. As your dog gets better move him out with the kids and the other pets. Teach him to stare at you no matter what is going on!
Request this behavior often! Many times I will simply ask for a “stare” from across the room or after my dog has been playing or is playing! I want to proof this behavior. You may notice your dog staring at you often, this is a good sign!
Once your dog can do this with more distractions, extend the time that he is able to continue staring. A one to two second stare down with you is not going to help later while you are out walking! Teach him to stare at you for a minute or two and then more!
Next, take his favorite toy and swing it in his face. Tap his muzzle with his toy or food. Is he able to continue staring at you and not look toward his toy? If he is not you are not ready! Continue working until this is possible.
You should be able to throw his toy/food, rub him with his toy/food, jump around move your arms back and forth, feed another dog or pet and still he should maintain his stare.
THEN, you will take him outside and go back to square one to teach him yet again that eye contact and focus outside are the same as eye contact and focus inside. Remember to be patient! He must again learn in outside surroundings. He will want to stare at everything else that is going on.
Your ultimate goal is to be able to touch him with food/toys, throw them, swing them and basically do everything you want while he maintains eye contact with you no matter where you are.
As always you will continue to reinforce him for successful attempts and just increase the time and the stimulus as he is triumphant and learns.
As with all good foundation training, this is not QUICK! This type of training takes time, energy and work on both of your parts. There will be frustration on both parts as well, but how you deal with this frustration will determine how successful you are later.
There is no QUICK FIX if you want your dog to truly be victorious and listen to you while he is on a leash.
Eventually you will not ask for this all of the time, only when you need it when he is distracted. But if you build a strong enough foundation with positive reinforcement and he enjoys this training he will give you eye contact and focus by default no matter what is going on. Meaning he does it because it is FUN, rewarding, and he is USE TO LISTENING TO YOU.
If however you rarely work on this skill or the finding heel skill you will end up with a dog that continues to pull and ignore you!
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.