On Good Behavior LLC

Attention, Please! Teaching “Watch”

Trainer and author Brenda Aloff says that all behavior problems stem from failure to train impulse control, tolerance of body handling, or attention. I used to think that attention training was something that was only necessary for success in the obedience ring, where dogs are expected to heel next to their handlers while maintaining eye contact (Here is a YouTube video of Flash and me competing and you can see he doesn’t take his eyes off me), but more and more often I find myself teaching pet dog owners how to use focused attention to correct and prevent problems.

A dog that is looking at you is paying attention and is likely to follow your direction. He is also not staring anyone down or fixating on squirrels, cars, other dogs, bicycles etc etc. If you have trouble with your dog obsessing over any of these things, a good Watch cue will be very helpful. If you have trouble keeping your dog’s attention, Watch will teach him to stay focused.

  1. Start with your dog sitting or standing in front of you. With a toy breed, you may want to kneel or sit in a chair.
  2. Bring a treat from your dog’s nose directly to the bridge of your nose. Hold the treat between your thumb and finger so it is touching the space right between your eyebrows.
  3. As soon as your dog makes eye contact (or cookie contact, it’s very hard at this stage to tell which!), say “Yes!”, pause, and give her the treat.
  4.  It’s very important that you don’t move your hand until after you’ve said Yes, otherwise you will be marking your dog for looking at the treat halfway between your face and hers. Our brains process language slower than movement, so you will have to make a conscious effort: Yes, pause, reward.
    Repeat until your dog looks up at your face right away. Now start to cue “Watch” as you bring the treat up to your face.
  5. Start to increase duration: praise (Good Dog!) and if she is still looking at you, Yes!, pause, reward. If she looks away when you praise, stop talking, wait for her to look back at your face, and start over with “Good Dog”—no treat until you can get through “Good Dog, Yes!” without her looking away.
  6. Now, let’s get the cookie out from in front of your face. Put treats in both hands, let your dog sniff them, then bring both hands straight out to the side at shoulder height as you cue “Watch”. Most likely, your dog will look back and forth between your two hands. Be patient. As she gets frustrated, she will most likely look into your face for help. Bingo! Tell her “Yes!”, pause, and reward. Repeat until this is easy.
  7. Build duration with your hands out as described in step 6.
  8. Gradually (over a few repetitions) lower your hands to your sides. This will be harder since she now has to look up and away from the treats to make eye-contact.
  9. Now let’s up the ante! Can she look at you while you wave a treat or toy around in the air? While another person walks in circles around you? While your kids push their noise making toys past you? If anything is too difficult, either move the distraction further away or have it move less until you are successful, then gradually increase the difficulty. You’ll know you are ready for the real thing when every new distraction causes your dog to lock in her focus on you in a determined way.
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