Teaching a dog to give you eye contact on command has many benefits. It can be used to keep a distracted dog focussed, maintain attention or build confidence. Some people prefer to use the word “look”, rather than the “watch” command.
Many dogs, especially those who are young and exuberant, are easily distracted out on walks. Owners can find it hard to gain their dog’s attention in certain situations, whether that be around other dogs or people, wildlife, joggers, cyclists, etc. This often makes it hard to recall dogs in such situations or keep them focussed on walking nicely on a loose lead. Teaching a “watch” command will enable you to keep your dog focussed on you. This will improve his responsiveness to training, and encourage calm behaviour around certain stimuli.
Having a reliable “watch” command is also very useful for dogs that may be reactive in certain situations, or nervous around certain stimuli such as other dogs or people. Teaching a “watch” command to such dogs will enable them to keep their attention on you and therefore be less worried about the environment around them. By providing your dog with this alternative behaviour it will reduce his stress response and build his confidence. This is the most effective way to reduce unwanted barking on a walk, for example.
Teaching the “watch” command:
- It’s important to start by teaching this behaviour in a location where there are few distractions and your dog feels secure, such as inside your home. Start by showing your dog a tasty treat, then hold this treat up to your eyes. As your dog looks up at you, cue the behaviour with the command word “watch”, and after a few seconds reward your dog with the treat. All the while your dog is making eye contact with you, you can praise and gently encourage the behaviour before giving him his treat. In time, you can start increasing the length of time your dog is maintaining eye contact with you before earning his reward. It is important to reward your dog for keeping eye contact before he looks away, so he is learning to hold your gaze in anticipation of the treat. If you find your dog looks away or gets distracted, you will need to shorten the length of time you are expecting him to maintain eye contact, and reward him more frequently.
- Once your dog has learnt the behaviour inside the home, you can start to practise in other environments, such as out on walks where the level of distraction may be higher. Sometimes dogs find it harder to remain focused if they are too over excited or uncomfortable in certain situations. If this is the case, you may need to move to a quieter area until your dog is calm enough to focus on you. You can also consider increasing the value of your food reward or taking your dog out before a meal. In difficult situations, you may only be expecting your dog to look at you for a split second to earn his reward.
Your dog does not have to be in a certain position to learn the “watch” command; some dogs may find it easier to practise the “watch” from a sit position, others may find it easier to keep focussed while on the move, whilst walking to “heel” for example. It’s a good idea to practise this exercise from many different positions as you will often need your dog to keep moving whilst watching you to get yourselves out of difficult situations.
Using a clicker to teach the “watch” command:
- Dogs who have been clicker trained often pick up this command very quickly using the clicker to mark the behaviour. Using the method of ‘free-shaping’, you can allow your dog to work out for himself what you would like him to do. This often results in a much stronger behaviour, and a dog who chooses to offer eye contact much more readily.
- Again, this will need to be started in a very quiet location at a time your dog is likely to be responsive. Starting with your dog in front of you, hold treats in one hand and clicker in the other (these may have to be behind your back if that’s all your dog will look at). Patiently wait for your dog to look up at your face; as soon as he does, immediately click and reward him. After he has done this a few times, you can start to add the verbal cue, i.e. as he looks up you, say “watch”, praise the behaviour, click and reward. You can then start to increase the length of time he maintains eye contact, before clicking and rewarding him. Once he has understood what to do, you can start by cueing him to “watch” before he looks up at you, so he is making eye contact upon the command word.
- If your dog is struggling to work out what to do for himself, you can give him a helping hand. Using the same principle as above, hold a treat up to your eye and give your dog the verbal cue “watch” as he looks up at you. After a few seconds, click and reward your dog.
Remember that the clicker marks the point of correct behaviour. It tells the dog exactly when he has done the right thing and a reward is about to follow. Don’t be tempted to use the clicker as a means to get your dog’s attention; doing this will de-value the clicker and your dog will become less responsive to it.
If your dog is not responding to the “watch” command then he is a situation where his arousal levels are too high to learn. Please make the situation easier for him and try again.
Further help required?
If you feel you require professional assistance with your dog’s behaviour then we can assist you via an individual training session or behaviour consultation, depending on the complexity of the issue.
Pet Necessities Professional Dog Training – Egham, Surrey.
www.petnecessities.co.uk. 07969 997 272. firstname.lastname@example.org.