When your dog looks at you, their “happy hormone” is released.
You already know you feel happier when you look at your dog—did you know it’s the same for your dog? When they look at you, their special human, they instantly feel happier. Which is a wonderful thing, of course, and also the basis of learning to heel, a challenging command for many dog owners to teach.
Making eye contact can be used to cue your dog to ignore all manner of distractions, such as other dogs barking, kids on skateboards, or any other eruption in their environment.
Here’s a simple exercise we call the “Watch Me” game.
Step One – Use a Treat to Train Your Dog to Make Eye Contact
Place a treat in front of your dog’s nose. Take the treat up to your eye, holding it between your thumb and index finger—this becomes your hand signal. When you have a few seconds of eye contact, say “Watch Me” to name the behaviour, and then reward with the treat.
Tip: This “Watch Me” cue, can also be called “Look” or “Focus”, or “Eyes”. Regardless of what you use, everyone in your household needs to use the same verbal cue and hand command (or gesture) cue with your dog.
As with other cues, practice again and again until your dog can also respond on cue without the treat. Until then, treat and repeat.
Step Two: Challenge Your Dog’s Attention
Once your dog is responding well to the cue, make it more and more difficult by adding distractions. Start with two treats, one in each hand, and show them to your dog. Move your hands apart until your arms are fully extended and you are making a T shape. Give the “Watch Me” command, and reward your dog when it looks at you, and not at the treats.
Step Three – End Your Eye Contact with “Release”
Now that your dog can hold eye contact for 10 to 15 seconds while distracted, add your dog’s “release word”, which is the same word that is used to release them from eye contact Note: the “Watch Me” release word is the same word as releasing your dog from their crate, their sit, down, stand or stay, and this allows them to end eye contact.
Step Four – Train Your Dog to Make Eye Contact – with Easy Distractions
Now, add a bigger distraction. Hold a toy behind your back and toss the toy while your dog is making eye contact. Reward your dog for being able to ignore the toy.
Tip: You can call this cue anything—Look, Watch Me, Focus, Eyes. What’s important is to ensure everyone uses the same cue and hand command/cue with your dog.