Teaching Your Dog to Listen with Eye Contact & Focus Training
An important command for any dog to know is the 'focus' command. Having your dog focus on you before giving further commands makes it easier for the dog to listen and obey well, as it puts the dog in an "awaiting next instruction" state of mind.
Here is how to teach your dog to listen and make eye contact with the focus command.
Teaching Your Dog to Listen: Phase One
- Choose a word for your focus command. Any word will work, but ideally you should choose a word that the dog will not hear casually. The less often your dog hears "focus" out of context, the stronger the association of the word with the action.
- Have your dog sit in front of you. Ideally you should be sitting so that you are close to eye-level with your dog.
- Take a treat your dog enjoys and hold it in a closed hand. Let your dog know that you are holding the treat.
- When you have your dog interested in the treat, quickly whip your hand behind your head. As you move the treat, say "focus". Your dog is likely to keep staring at the treat as it moves, and give you eye contact by mistake.
- If your dog does make eye contact, even very briefly, say "good focus" and hand over the treat.
- If your dog fails to make eye contact, do not treat or say "good focus". Instead, return to step 3 and try again.
After many repetitions of the above, your dog will begin to understand the association between the word you speak, the way you move your hand, the eye contact, and the resulting treat.
Once your dog has made these mental connections, phase one of "focus" training has been a success.
The second phase is all about removing context, so that the command will work when you're not sitting on the floor holding a treat behind your head!
Teaching Your Dog to Listen: Phase Two
This phase can sometimes be non-eventful. Depending on the dog, it may be as simple as saying "focus" outside the training context and being delighted when it immediately works.
If you are less lucky, you will need to take steps to remove the context of the "focus" command, stripping it down to simply a word and an action; rather than a word, an action, a place, a tone of voice, a treat, a person, and so on.
Teaching your dog to listen and "focus" in any context is easy if you understand a little bit about the way dogs learn.
The way dogs learn is by realizing that some things are very much linked to other things, for example:
- The rustle of a dog food packet is associated with getting food.
- Night falling is associated with the household going to bed.
- Chewing on shoes is associated with being yelled at.
Unfortunately, dogs often pay more attention to context than their trainers might like.
If all of your training sessions for "focus" take place in the living room, you may find that your dog will perform the command perfectly in the living room and completely ignore it when outside.
Similarly, a dog may learn not to dig up one section of the garden only to move on and dig up a different area. Your dog isn't necessarily behaving badly; they just have trouble understanding that a rule in situation A also applies in situation B.
Stripping your "focus" command down to nothing but a word is easy:
Begin by going through the usual steps from phase one a couple of times, treating and saying "good focus" upon success.
After a couple of successful "focus" responses, start making deliberate alterations to your behavior. For example:
Essentially, the idea is to make every part of the situation unpredictable except for the "focus" word, the action the dog must perform, and your approval.
With repetition, your dog will easily learn both the fundamental idea of "focus" and to obey it in any context.
Lastly, an important note for anyone teaching their dog to listen and focus:
Dogs are born with an inbuilt idea about the significance of eye contact, which you need to understand and manage.
Dogs consider eye contact to be an assertive or even aggressive gesture. A lowly member of a pack would not dare make prolonged eye contact with the alpha... because that would be a challenge.
A beta in a pack might want to have a staring contest with the alpha, but that would be the beginnings of a dominance struggle.
The human-dog relationship is not the same as dog-dog relationships, and eye contact does not always constitute a challenge; just be aware that you can make your dog very uncomfortable if you force prolonged eye contact.