Dog gets distracted outside? Work on eye contact exercises.

If your dog gets easily distracted outside, increasing the frequency of your dog's attention towards you is an important strategy to practice. This behavior lessens the normal desire to constantly scan the environment for distractions. It is also a very basic way of “starting the conversation” with a dog. If your dog learns to check in by looking at you, it will be easier to ask him to do things that you like such as walking nicely, Stop or come to you.  

There are two strategies to increase the frequency of eye contact with your dog.

  1. Shape the behavior. Shaping consists of rewarding behaviors as they happen. Examples include looking at you, walking near you, and not pulling on the leash.
  2. Cue the behavior. Cueing is the process of asking your dog to do certain behaviors. This will come after some practice with shaping. It is much easier to ask a dog to do a behavior after he has done that behavior in the past.

Watch Me
This is the cue that I will use in this post. You can use anything that makes sense to you. Other suggestions include: Look at Me, Watch, Focus, etc. You can also use your dog’s name to mean, “Watch Me” as long as you are consistent in its use. Learn more about consistency in dog training.

As with all training, first start inside without distractions to get the behavior started. The exercises will be much easier inside with minimal distractions and then you will have to adjust your expectations when you move outside. Stay farther away from distractions outside at first, or block your dog's vision with your body until he looks at you.

I use two strategies for teaching Watch Me. I start by shaping and then I teach the verbal cue.

Shaping Strategies

  1. Hold a treat to the side of your head and look at your dog
  2. Wait until he looks away from the treat
  3. Make a small noise with your mouth to entice him to look at you, if needed
  4. Click and treat, or say, “Yes” and treat when he just looks anywhere but the treat
  5. After you get some repetition at this level, increase your expectations until he looks closer to your face or directly in your eyes
  6. Make a small noise with your mouth to entice him to look at you, if needed
  7. Click and Treat
  8. The next step is to get more duration and say “good boy” as he is doing the behavior to get more duration before each click and treat.

Teaching the Verbal Cue "Watch Me"

After you get some reliability with Shaping, you can add the Cue “Watch Me”

  1. Say, “Watch Me” ONE TIME
  2. Then start with the strategies above in the shaping section
  3. Make a small noise with your mouth if your dog needs help turning around

Leash Walking and Eye Contact

  1. The next step is to combine this with movement. Do the same strategies above while your dog is on leash inside your house.
  2. Put a toy or a treat down on your floor.
  3. Work on the Shaping Strategies first and then work on Cueing him
  4. Reward him with a Click and Treat when he looks at you
  5. Use this when someone comes in the front door or when he wants to say “hello” to a dog outside. Ask him to “Watch Me” and then allow him to go say hello.
  6. The main lesson is “You want something? You need to look at me first.”

Daily Strategies

  1. Work inside first
  2. Take ONE step outside in front and wait for eye contact before walking further
  3. If he doesn’t look at you within 30 seconds, move back inside and work there
  4. Reward him for looking at you inside by moving outside
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