“Look at moiye, look at moiye please!”
Teaching your dog to give you eye contact can be one of the most valuable training tools that you have, and a real investment in your family pet.
If your dog isn’t looking at you, then it is probably not thinking about you or what you want it to do either. By teaching your dog to give you eye contact, you are training it to stop and concentrate on what you are asking.
Eye contact is communication
For a well-adjusted family pet conditioned to look at you with its full attention, eye contact becomes associated with praise and attention, and becomes a form of positive communication between owner and pet.
Teaching eye contact
There are many different ways to teach eye contact. The important thing is to be consistent and to time your reward with the behaviour that you are teaching so your dog knows what you want.
STEP 1. Get attention then praise
A simple method is first to get your dog’s attention by saying its name and having a treat in your hand, then put the treat behind your back and wait for your dog to look up at you (probably thinking ‘What ARE they doing?!’). The instant that you have its eye contact, praise your dog verbally, and give it the treat. If you are using clicker training, also click the eye contact (remember, clicking is just a way of saying ‘good dog’).
STEP 2. Repeat
As your dog gets the hang of it, wait for slightly longer eye contact before rewarding. You can also start to associate a verbal cue – ‘watch’ or ‘watch me’ – timed as the dog is looking at you and before the praise and treat are given.
Always do at least four or five repetitions before you release the dog’s attention. This teaches your dog to keep attention on you until you release it. Many short, repeated and fun training sessions work the best.
By always praising before you give the treat, you are building the value of your praise in the dog’s mind. Later, you will not always give a treat, as dogs learn best by intermittent treat rewards.
STEP 3. Use eye contact in everyday situations
Keep practising! Use eye contact for everyday activities. Wait for eye contact before feeding, going outside or getting out of the car. If your dog is tugging on walks, stop, back up a little and wait for it to look up at you.
Soon, it becomes habit for your dog to look at you when you say its name – and for you to positively reinforce your dog’s attention. Eye contact from your dog will mean ‘I am listening to you’ as well as ‘Is that what you want?’ and ‘Please may I?’
You will also find that your dog will begin to look up at you more even when you haven’t asked them too. Give praise (verbal, a short pat or even sometimes a treat) when you notice your dog doing this, remembering that sometimes you will miss it, which goes unrewarded so is consistent with the intermittent reward system that works so well.
Never take eye contact for granted. Make every time your dog looks at you rewarding for the dog. If you teach your dog to give attention to you when you say its name, you can eventually develop the ability to get and hold your dog’s attention anytime you wish.