Eye Contact Exercise Tony Cruse

The exercise of teaching eye contact is not only one of the most rewarding lessons to teach for the owner but will also teach the dog a fundamental behaviour that will keep the dog communicating with the owner for life.

Once a dog has learned eye contact he will always 'check in' with a look whenever he desires something. Eye contact instantly opens up a communication channel between you and your dog.  Rover's 'want' maybe a good thing or it maybe an undesirable thing. The point is, the dog asks by looking directly at the handler. He 'checks-in'.  For example, once learned, the dog may want to eliminate in the garden, he will give the handler eye contact. He may want to run over the field to a bigger dog, he will give the handler eye contact. The handler then has the final say. The handler is in control and the dog is effectively asking with a fixed glance.
It is never too late to teach this but as with most things it is better to teach it as soon as you get your puppy. Putting food in a bowl is such a wasted opportunity. The food is a huge motivator and a primary reinforcer, so use it for training, especially at meal times. Hand feeding your dog strengthens the bond and provides a massive opportunity to reinforce any exercises or to teach new ones.

So, it's Rover's dinnertime, remove the food bowl because we are starting with the 'Eye Contact' exercise. This will work better with dry kibble because it's easier to manage and distribute.

Take a handful of your dogs kibble and make a fist.
Crouch down and show the dog the fist holding it to your side. We hold our fist out to the side so that when eye contact occurs there is no doubt your dog is looking away from the food and at you.
Be patient. The dog may paw, lick or nibble your hand but wait.
You are waiting for that split second of eye contact. It may take time but wait it out. I have known it take several minutes initially.
For that split second your dog offers you that eye contact, mark it with a word like "Good" (or click for those clicker trainers) and open your fist and allow the dog to munch.
Refill if necessary and close your fist. Repeat the exercise.
'Eye Contact' should occur quicker this time. Keep repeating and at some point there will be a 'eureka moment' where the dog understands that to get to the food he must look you in the eye. It is a fantastic moment.
Repeat about ten times per mealtime and always end on success.

When your dog has worked it out, start adding duration. Get that eye contact and count to two before you mark it with a "Good" or click and allow access to the food. Do ten reps of counting to two.

For the next mealtime repeat but count to four. Repeat and build during every mealtime. Once you get to around thirty seconds you have mastered the exercise and the dog will start checking back for food.

The exercise is about controlling the resource, in this case food. But as a dog owner, you can also control every other resource. So perform the same incremental steps whenever your dog desires something that you can control.

Here is a further example. Before letting your dog into the garden, put your hand on the door handle and wait. Wait for that split second of eye contact, mark it with a "Good" and open the door. It is very easy. Build up duration, as you would have done with the food.
When your dog wants to be let off the lead to sniff a hedge, wait for the eye contact, mark it and unclick his lead. The reward for the dog is the 'life reward' of sniffing and being free. 

Your dog will ask you by looking up at you.
To strengthen this, it can be performed before anything the dog desires. Be it food, toys, a garden visit or being released from a crate or stairgate. Your dog must obviously desire something for this to work effectively.  It is usually quite clear if the dog wants something, he'll pull at the lead towards it or gaze at it.

The beauty of eye contact is that the dog will ask you what he wants by looking at your face. It is rewarding for you because you get to see those doggy eyes and the communication between handler and dog flows.  You both understand the rules. You can then allow it by marking it ("Good" or a click for clicker trainers) if it's acceptable. However, for example,  if your dog wants to run over to a group of children, he'll look, you can deny it and request another behaviour instead. Perhaps a recall, an about-turn or a sit.

The eye contact is also a fantastic base in which to train basic behaviour because you will have the dogs attention and focus.

For those scientific people we are using the Premack Theory, which is acquiring an unlikely behaviour before a more likely behaviour. Also, we are conditioning the dog, so the look/check-in becomes a habit.

Hopefully now you can see that feeding from a food bowl can be a waste. Think of that time you could be bonding with your dog and training your dog. All vanished within 10-30 seconds! Use the situation to build up this exercise and both you and your dog will never look back!

by TONY CRUSE,  Tc Dog Training   
Exercise often covered during a 1-2-1.  Click HERE