Getting your dog to make and maintain eye contact with you is a very useful skill. It is especially helpful when you are out on a walk and your dog wants to stop in the grass every 20 feet to mark or if your dog wants to meet every person or dog whom you encounter. In those situations you can make your dog focus on you, essentially forcing him to ask permission before he goes to the bathroom or approaches a person or dog. It also gives you an opportunity to assess whether or not you will allow him to do whatever it is he is asking. For instance, when I take my dog Molly for a walk, she likes to stop often and mark. She knows that she is not allowed in the grass until she sits and looks me in the eyes and I give her permission to mark. Because she knows this, anytime she finds a place where she wants to go, she will slow down and sit next to it and look up and me and wait. Since we live in Florida this skill is invaluable because I can take a moment to look for any snakes or fire-ant hills or any other potential hazards before she goes walking through it.
Teaching Your Dog the Focus/Leave It Command
If you’ve been keeping up with my previous guides, you know that I use a clicker in all of my training, as well as small training treats as rewards. The verbal command that I use for this command is “Leave It”. You can also use “Focus” or “Look at me”. Whichever you choose, be consistent so your dog doesn’t get confused. For the purposes of this walkthrough, I will be using “Leave It”. This command will take a bit of time for your dog to figure out, so remember to be patient and encouraging. Lastly, when giving the command, if your dog doesn’t obey the first time, wait patiently for 10-15 seconds before you repeat the command. Saying the command multiple times in a row can be confusing for him.
Steps for Teaching “Leave It”:
- With your dog in front of you and a firm grip on the treat, hold the treat in front of your dog’s nose and let him attempt to get it out of your hand. IMPORTANT: don’t let go of the treat!
- Once he starts nibbling at your hand and fingers in an attempt to get the treat, say, “Leave It.”
- He will likely keep nibbling for a few seconds, but once he stops, wait for him to look you in the eyes. As soon as he looks at you, even for a split second, click and give him the treat and lots of praise. Timing is extremely important with your clicker. You’re trying to mark the exact moment when he makes eye contact, so be ready.
- After repeating steps 1-3 a few more times, your dog will understand that he is supposed to leave the treat alone in order for you to give it to him. The harder part will be getting him to look you in the eyes. Please be patient and wait for him to make eye contact every time before clicking and giving him the treat.
- As your dog gets better at making eye contact with you, try having him maintain eye contact for a second or two before he gets the treat. Gradually increase the duration of the eye contact as he gets more experience.
Advanced “Leave It”:
Now that your dog is good at making eye contact with you reliably, try increasing the distractions. You can also practice when you are out for a walk. Maybe at each crosswalk you can stop and make him sit and make eye contact with you before you cross the street. I always release my girls from whatever command they are holding with the word “Okay.” It helps them know when they are allowed to break their position. It also reinforces that I am the pack leader and I make the rules.
If you need additional instruction or have any questions, leave a comment and I will be happy to help!