As a professional dog walker with a dog training background one of the first things I work on with my new clients is putting eye contact on cue if the dog hasn’t already mastered this skill. When a dog is having a hard time focusing on walks many humans become frustrated and may tighten up on the dog’s leash to try and reign their dog in to gain some control. Unfortunately this can prompt the dog to pull even more, even to the point of creating leash frustration, and leash corrections tell our dogs “focus- or else. I mean it!” Imagine being able to communicate this message to your dog instead: “hey, this is important and I need your cooperation. We can make it a game, ready?” One of the best ways to go about this is to train and reinforce eye contact.

Having a cue for eye contact really comes in handy to help manage many common behaviour problems that occur on walks including pulling. By putting this behaviour on cue we teach our dogs that making eye contact with us is their job, they get paid to do it and it allows them to gain access to all sorts of fun incentives. You can give your cue for eye contact as a way to ask your dog to say please before letting do stuff they like to do. It’s a great way to check-in with your dog and since behaviour that get’s rewarded gets repeated soon your dog will be initiating eye contact to communicate that they want access to things.

Eye contact is one of the most versatile dog training tools. For starters, it’s an exercise in focus and impulse control. It’s also what’s known as a DRI, which stands for Direct Reinforcement of an Incompatible Behaviour. A DRI is a way to prevent your dog from performing unwanted behaviours by replacing the unwanted behaviour with a trained, desirable behaviour. The possibilities are endless when you’re using this training principle! You’re replacing a behaviour that you don’t want with a behaviour you do want and which prevents the nuisance behaviour. Brilliant, right?

I use eye contact all the time on walks to help prevent or redirect unwanted behaviours in dogs and to teach dogs what’s expected in any given situation. Here are some of my favourite applications:

Loose Leash Walking: If your dog is pulling on the leash you can use your cue for eye contact to get your dog to heel beside you. Straining forward and pulling on the leash and giving eye contact are incompatible behaviours. So if you want a dog who walks in synch with you and gazes into your eyes devotedly then surely you should teach your dog to give eye contact on cue, for starters. This is particularly helpful for when you’re crossing a road or walking towards the dog park and you need your dog to be focused on you instead of barreling full speed ahead.

Managing Reactivity: Some dogs get really fired up about other dogs, people, noises or movements that they’re unsure of. That’s alright, it’s pretty common. While you’re working on desensitization and counter conditioning you may need a stepping stone to help manage the situation to keep your dog from getting upset. When your dog starts getting tense at the sight of their trigger give your cue for eye contract and reward generously. This allows you to gain distance from the trigger while your dog focuses on you while you guide your dog a safe distance away (or while you let the scary thing pass by). Your dog will also learn that the appearance of the trigger means they get to do a fun task and get rewarded, which will help create a more positive emotional response to the trigger.

Preventing Over-Excitement: Dogs can be passionate beings, they really live in the moment! So if your dog goes gaga for the dog next door or gets zany at the sight of a squirrel try asking for eye contact before your dog notices the thing that over-excites them and reward them for maintaining eye contact while you walk past the ever-so-exciting thing. If your dog is fairly fluent at giving eye contact at cue you can use the cue when your dog is distracted to redirect their focus onto you. This is an excellent impulse control exercise.

Leave-It: Ruh-roh, someone dropped a pizza crust on the sidewalk and you spy it before your dog does. Leave-it can be a fairly advanced exercise in impulse control when there’s a delicious pizza crust for the taking. What do you do?! You can ask your dog for eye contact as soon as you spot the tasty morsel and keep rewarding eye contact while you walk by the pizza crust- or whatever else you want to avoid- garbage, a dead seagull, a neighbourhood cat or a slimy-looking puddle of water you don’t want your dog to imbibe in- the possibilities are endless!

Wanna teach your dog to offer eye contact on cue?

You’ll need: a clicker (or you can use a marker word like “yes”), high value food rewards and 5mins of spare time a couple of times each day. Here are five simple steps:

Step One: Have your dog on a leash in an environment with minimal distractions. Wait for your dog to make eye contact with you. As soon as he/she makes eye contact mark (click/“yes!”) and reward your dog and feed them directly to their mouth (vs throwing the treat on the ground). If your dog doesn’t make direct eye contact, mark and reward an approximation such as looking in your general direction. Your dog will soon understand that they’re meant to look at you for rewards. Then you can increase the criteria to looking at your face and then making eye contact. Some dogs, especially shy or fearful dogs, can find making eye contact a little intimidating. Be patient and lower your criteria as necessary, use shaping and take baby steps. If your dog is reluctant to make eye contact or even look at your general direction you can also prompt eye contact with a kissy noise or lure it by holding a treat in front of your face but gradually phase these things out before moving onto the next step. Once your dog understands that they’re being rewarded for making eye contact you’re ready to move on to the next step.

Step Two: Keep your dog on a leash in an environment with minimal distractions. Wait for your dog to make eye contact with you. As soon as he/she makes eye contact mark and reward but this time throw the food reward onto the ground behind your dog. This way your dog will have to reorient towards you to make eye contact once again. Once your dog is doing this fluently move on to the next step.

Step Three: Keep your dog on a leash in an environment with minimal distractions. Wait for your dog to make eye contact with you and right before they do add your cue (“look” “watch” “ready” “focus” “at me” or simply your dog’s name). When the dog makes eye contact toss the food reward behind the dog do they have to reorient back to you. Mark and reward eye contact and continue to give the cue just as your dog is reorienting towards you. You may need to spend a few 5min sessions on this step, ideally split it up over a day or two so your dog has time to sleep on this. Move on to the next step once your dog is reliably offering eye contact on cue.

Step Four: Practice, practice, practice around distractions! Start around mild distractions and work up towards your dog’s kryptonite. Remember to reward your dog generously. If your dog won’t offer eye contact on cue because the distraction is too heavy take a step back and practice at the level where they were last successful and try again.

Step Five: Start asking your dog for eye contact before granting them access to things they like: life rewards! Before entering the dog park, when they first start to strain towards a smell, before greeting another dog or before you let them mark on a pole (if that’s your dog’s thing). Reinforcing behaviour through life rewards helps dogs generalize behaviours to lots of situations and teaches them to learn to earn the stuff they like.


Happy tails!

Meghan D’Arcy
Instagram: Walkwithmeg

Now available in our shop

Meghan D'Arcy is a dog nerd, apprentice dog trainer and behaviour consultant and professional dog walker living in Toronto, Ontario with her Basenji mix Wile E Coyote and a house full of foster cats. Meg owns and operates her own independent dog walking and pet sitting business called Walk With Meg and is a member of the Toronto Dog Walkers Association. She spends her days leading doggie adventures, socializing puppies and petting cats in her downtime. As a student of the Academy for Dog Trainers, Meg's focus is working with fearful and reactive dogs and promoting active socialization for puppies to prevent behavioural issues. Meg and her dog Wile E Coyote have been having fun working as a team to learn the sport of agility and earn therapy dog certification with St John Ambulance. Meg enjoys using her knowledge of dog training and behaviour to enhance her relationship with dogs and make every walk fun and fulfilling.

One Response

Leave a Reply