Thursday, September 22, 2011

Putting it into Practice- Round Two- Focus!

On Tuesday I talked about playing the Trade Up Game to teach a dog to drop an object on command.  For Sinatra, this is because he has some minor resource guarding that I want to work on before he finds a new home.  For Skye, it is really just because I don't want to have to pry a toy out of her mouth every time we play fetch.

Today I wanted to discuss another important training tool that a lot of dogs can benefit from- teaching focus.  Sinatra gets very excited when he is on leash and sees a dog or a jogger going by.  While his excitement is not that intense, he is a big boy to try and hold back and I want him to learn to restrain his impulses.  This technique is also great for leash reactive dogs and I've had a lot of success with clients who dread walking their dog for fear that they will throw a tantrum at the sight of another pooch.

Since I don't currently have pictures for this, I'll be using Skye and Sinatra's last wilderness adventure pictures as visual breaks (that way I don't have to write a whole separate post about it!).

Sinatra forcing Skye to share her stick,

Exercise 1:  Watch Me

Prior to becoming a dog trainer, it never occurred to me to put eye contact on command.  My dogs generally love to make eye contact with me, and it isn't exactly the type of behavior I thought about putting a name to.  But when I brought Skye to her first obedience class (from hell) I noticed that she would look at anything other than me.  At the time I was also reading one of Patricia McConnell's books (I recommend all of them to any dog owner) that included a section on "watch me."

How to Start:
As with any new training exercise, it is best to start in the least distracting environment.  For us, that is the living room; even out in the yard can be too distracting to a dog.

There are two ways to begin, and I'll lay them both out for you.  I tend to go with the first method, as I like to have dogs figure things out for themselves, but I also use method two for dogs that are not keen on eye contact in the first place.  The outcome is the same no matter what, so don't worry about which one you use.

Method 1:

Stand still, don't say or do anything, but make sure your dog knows you have a tasty treat waiting to be earned.  This may take a while, but don't do anything until your dog makes eye contact.  This may only be a second or two of direct eye contact, so be ready to spring into action when you get it.  I try to make my reaction night and day:  I'm still and silent, but that second of eye contact makes me crouch down, reward the dog, and praise them.  Then stand up and start again.  I usually do 5 rounds of this, then take a break and go back to it a little later.

Once your dog is making steady eye contact (5 sec or more) you can add in some distractions, which I'll explain in a bit.

He doesn't swim, but he enjoys water aerobics in the shallow end.

Method 2:

Ask your dog to sit, and bring a pointed finger up to your face.  Many dogs will follow a pointed finger easily, and are likely to make eye contact, even if they quickly look away.  Like with Method 1, be ready to immediately praise and treat the eye contact, and keep sessions short so the dog isn't bored.  With this method, you typically see a dog progress faster, but they are more dependent on the visual signal of the pointing hand to the face.  I like having a visual signal, but when you're trying to do this out on a walk with a leash, poop bag, treats, etc it can be tough.


Be sure to always reward forward progress.  The first 5 times, I'll accept a glance of eye contact.  The next session, I wait for more solid eye contact.  By the 4th-5th session, I want the dog to hold eye contact for a few seconds.  If your dog has started giving you 3 seconds of eye contact, then be sure to only reward for eye contact that lasts that long.  If you continue to reward a glance as well as solid focus, you'll find your dog is less eager to challenge themselves.

Once your dog is quickly making eye contact whenever you are still or are pointing, you can add in the verbal cue.  I use "focus" because I can say it in a clear, calm voice.  Many people use "watch me" or "here" or anything else you can remember.  Pair the verbal cue with the behavior over a few sessions by saying the word as your dog is making eye contact.  This will make the transition easier when it is time to say the word first, and get the behavior after.

What did the pit bulls find?

After a few sessions in a minimally distracting environment, it's time to take the show on the road.  Don't be surprised if your dog who was staring at you constantly in the house is now ignoring you in the yard.  Dogs don't generalize well, and I always lower my standards when I start in a new environment.  So, regardless of your method, it's time to start rewarding glances again for at least one session.  If your dog is still staring at you- great!

I try to practice in 3 different spots that are somewhat easy before I add in any real challenges.  I want to know that the dog is excited to respond quickly, and willing to maintain eye contact for a short period of time- about 15-30 seconds.  Then it's time to try it on the move!

It's a rock with a face!

At first, be sure and stay in one of your first 3 training spots so that you aren't adding too much at once.  On a leash, walk around with your dog.  As you walk, occasionally look down and give your verbal cue.  Every dog is different at this step; if your dog makes eye contact, reward (even if it is short), but if your dog ignores you than stop and wait for the eye contact before you reward and continue.

I'll only do a few sessions of this before starting it on my daily walking route.  All I want to establish with the dog is that focus means the same thing in the house, in the yard, and when we're on the move.  Like with everything I start out easy, and then expect longer periods of eye contact to earn a reward.  Soon, you'll be ready to ask for eye contact while out on a walk when there aren't any major distractions around.

Ooooo- it's the kind that tries to bite back!

Get the gist of it?  Slowly introduce more and more distraction, while working on longer periods of eye contact in easier situations.  If your dog is reactive, introduce the sight of a dog from far enough away that your dog isn't going to react, but will be on high alert.  Ask for easy eye contact, then turn and walk away.  Keep practicing at closer and closer distances, and reward heavily for progress.  If your dog does react, you probably went a little too fast and it's time to walk away and try again another time.  Remember that your dog is learning self control, and it won't happen in a week.

Also keep in mind how you are responding to the sight of that dog.  Are you tense?  Did you pull up on the leash?  Is your normally calm voice higher and faster, repeating the cue over and over?  If you want your dog to learn calm behavior around other dogs, you have to do the same.  If that is something you think will be difficult, practice with a friend's dog first (assuming that dog isn't reactive).  Polish up your handling skills, work on your timing, and gain confidence that you know what you're doing, and it will work. 

When I get to a point that I can walk closely by another dog, with my dog maintaining eye contact the entire time, I could phase out the food reward.  I sometimes do, but more often I continue rewarding at random time intervals, to keep my dog interested.  It is a real challenge for a dog to control their impulses and I want it to be worth it.

By the time I enrolled in my first agility class with Skye, she was a master.  We had two reactive dogs in class who made a lot of noise and she would sit calmly, watching me at all times.  I received so many compliments on her focus- it was the first time I was really proud of her!  Now, Sinatra is in the process of learning the same thing.  I've used a few other exercises to help him, which I'll explain in my next post, since he is such a busy boy.  I hope this is helpful for those of you who dread walking your dog, but if I missed something be sure to ask questions in the comments section, or drop me an e-mail at

Baby snapping turtle: 1      Pit bulls: 0


  1. Skye with that turtle looks just like Koira last summer! We went to a garage sale, and boy was she startled when their tortoise started walking around.

  2. I love the focus a lot of your posts have had on common training issues lately. It's been super helpful to me; as have your comments on my blog. Hurley's got Look but I need to work on extending his focus for more than 5 seconds. Thanks!

  3. This is so great! With our new foster guy we have some things to work on, but I realize how much I had forgotten. Love this!

  4. Hi Y'all,

    My Human plays games with me still. She calls it "eyes".

    Anything I want I can get by eyeing her.

    She hides treats in her hands and puts her hands behind her back and then I sit and stare and earn a treat. When we play fetch I have to stand and stare before she'll throw.

    There's lots of other "eyes" games we play and they are all fun and all have TREATS. She says it keeps me polite and sharp. :)

    Y'all come by now,
    Hawk aka BrownDog

  5. Such an important lesson and not an easy one


  6. Yes, focus is SO important (and so hard sometimes...with my "bull-headed" Dewi). I'd love to see you in action with your dogs. :)


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