One of the first things I teach people to teach their dogs in my basic “Good Manners” class is to respond to their names. We can’t teach our dogs anything, I tell my students, unless we have their attention.
Getting a dog’s attention is not enough, however; to be truly successful in training you must be able to keep a dog’s attention once you have it. And this is best accomplished by convincing her that it’s in her best interest to offer attention of her own accord.
If you’ve ever watched an obedience competition and marveled at the dogs who gaze intently at their handlers’ faces throughout the entire test, never once breaking eye contact, you know exactly what we’re talking about. It speaks volumes about the relationship between dog and owner to have that kind of communication . . . or does it?
The old way
When I first trained my dogs seriously for obedience competition, I was disillusioned to discover exactly how that kind of attention was accomplished. My dogs and I learned two approaches: a force-based way and the hot dog way.
The force-based way was pretty brutal at times. The other students and I would stand with our dogs in the heel position, each of us exhorting our own dog to “Watch me!” while training assistants, otherwise known as “distractions,” would move amongst us, doing everything they could think of to get our dogs to look away: calling, clapping, whistling, offering hot dogs. If our dog took her eyes off us to look at a distraction, we were to say “Watch me!” and give a severe yank on the choke chain. Our dogs soon realized the price they paid for looking away, and kept their eyes glued on us from fear of the painful consequence of doing otherwise.
The hot dog way was more fun for all concerned. We humans would stuff our cheeks full of hot dog pieces (make mine a veggie dog!), which we would occasionally spit toward our canine partners as we heeled merrily around the training ring. Never knowing when the next hot dog “penny” might coming flying through the air, our dogs kept their eyes riveted on our faces. It was more eye-to-lip contact than eye-to-eye contact, actually, but it kept them oriented toward us as the obedience genre expected, and sufficed to earn us high scores in the competitive obedience ring.
I much preferred the far more benign hot dog method, of course – and I’m sure my dogs did, too – but it still left something to be desired in terms of positive training and relationship. My dogs looked at my face because they recognized that hot dogs appeared from that location, but I’m not sure they realized it was their intent gaze that made the hot dogs appear.
At the time, I didn’t know that teaching dogs how to “make” us give them a reward for their behavior was a desirable goal. I had been taught the luring technique as a way to elicit the desired behavior; I was as yet unfamiliar with the concept of teaching dogs to think from an operant conditioning perspective.
Today’s positive trainers have a much more sophisticated approach to teaching the “Watch me!” exercise. We want the dog to actually think, and understand that looking at her handler attentively makes good stuff happen, regardless of where the treats happen to be.
To that end, in the first session of my classes I have the owners come without their dogs, and I explain that when they arrive with their dogs the next week they will stand quietly, just holding their dogs’ leashes and not asking for any behavior or soliciting attention. The instant their dogs look at them – or even look in their general direction – they are to click! a clicker and give their dogs a treat. They are to continue clicking and handing over treats at a high rate of reinforcement as long as the dogs keep looking at them. If a dog looks away, her handler should stop the flow of treats, and wait for the dog to pay attention again. The intent of this exercise is to teach the dogs that voluntary attention is a highly rewardable behavior.
It takes only about five minutes for most or all of the dogs to be intently focused on their personal click-and-treat dispensers. Then the students can begin to ask their dogs for other behaviors, such as sit, stand, and down. I tell the owners to use their dogs’ names for brief lapses of attention, but to continue to look for opportunities to click! and reward voluntary attention.
As the dogs progress, I add distractions to the attention exercise, but rather than deliberately luring the dogs’ attention away so the owner can punish them, I introduce distractions at a low level so the dogs can succeed in remaining focused on their owners and get rewarded for that behavior. They learn that keeping their attention on their owners even in the face of increasingly tempting distractions is highly rewarded.
“He’s just looking at the food!”
At some point during the six weeks of my “basic” class, some owners point out that their dogs are orienting on their treats – on bait bags, treat pockets, or treats they hold in their hands – rather than really making eye contact. I have them work on this in my “intermediate” class by making the treats the distraction.
The owner starts by holding a treat up to her face to encourage eye contact. When the dog looks at her, she clicks! and gives the dog the treat. Then she moves the treat a few inches to the side of her face, and waits. Sooner or later the dog, who is watching the treat intently, will glance toward the owner’s face as if to ask why the click! is not forthcoming. At that instant the owner clicks! and feeds the dog the treat. She repeats this until the dog is looking at her face quickly, and for increasingly long periods (up to several seconds) to elicit the click! and treat.
Then she moves the treat a few inches farther from her face and continues the game. At this point she also adds the “Watch!” or “Pay attention!” cue that she will use to get the dog to maintain eye contact from then on. It is important to click! consistently before the dog breaks eye contact while gradually lengthening the contact time, so the dog comes to understand that “Watch!” means “maintain eye contact until released.”
Eventually, the treat can be anywhere, while the dog’s gaze remains riveted to the owner’s face for long periods. Voila! Now this dog/owner team can go into the obedience or Rally ring and achieve the kind of attention that spectators and other competitors envy. And this is accomplished not because the dog is waiting for a hot dog to shoot out of the handler’s mouth, or avoiding a punishing jerk on the collar. It happens because the dog truly understands and happily performs the desired and rewardable behavior of maintaining eye contact and attention, even while in perfect heel position.
For “regular” dogs, too!
Treats need not be the only reward for paying attention. If your Border Collie is obsessed with her tennis ball (and what self-respecting Border Collie isn’t?), teach her that eye contact, not bumping you with her nose or jumping up on you, is what makes you throw the ball. You can also teach your dog that sitting quietly near you and staring at you will earn her a chance to go play outside, go for a walk, or play a game with you.
Even though this skill is critical for competitors in the show ring, it’s also a valuable behavior for “regular” dogs and owners.
A good “attention” cue can keep your reactive dog focused on you while other dogs (or other reaction-eliciting stimuli) pass nearby. It can also keep your dog away from the Arrowroot biscuit in the nearby toddler’s hand, or from the pile of unidentifiable rotting carcass on the side of the hiking trail.
Also, if you have visions of fame and fortune, it can keep her attentive to you when you make your grand debut on the PetStarz stage in front of a huge live audience. But whether you make it to Hollywood or not, the two of you will be stars in your own right if you can perfect the “Pay Attention” game and apply it to everyday life.