August 30, 2006
The Eyes Have It!
Training a dog in basic obedience is one of the many responsibilities of ownership. Some of us may want to go further. If your goal is to bring out the very best in your dog, here are some tips to help you along.
Develop good eye contact with your dog. Obedience comes from encouraging your dog's awareness of you in all situations. Do not underestimate the importance of frequent eye contact with your dog. It can be developed in a relatively short period of time by working on it several times a day when you have a spare moment.
Start indoors when you are alone with your dog. Fix your eyes on her and, when she meets your gaze, light up your expression and say, "Good girl! I see you!" Repeat this several times daily. With most dogs, your pleasant response and positive body language are reward enough. Use food only in special cases. Timing is very important here. You must acknowledge your dog's gaze with split-second precision. She will quickly learn that you are pleased when she looks at you. Once you have mastered eye contact indoors, start working outside, preferably off-leash in a fenced-in area.
Strong eye contact leads to an improved attention span. When properly trained, you will find your dog "checking in" with her eyes quite often, several times a minute in most cases.
Next, try some silent training sessions, using only eye contact and hand signals. Put your dog in a sit and show her your palm for a "stay." Walk around her in a circle. Notice her following you with her eyes as you circle. When you come back in front, give a crisp "down" signal with your left hand and circle her again. Hold her gaze with your eyes and reward with enthusiasm if she completes the exercise properly.
Some dogs use eye contact to assert dominance over one another. Usually when two dogs make eye contact, one dog will avert its gaze, acknowledging that the other has a higher pecking order status. This instinctive pack behavior may be OK between dogs, but I prefer to establish a working master/dog relationship between dogs and owners.
Remember, dogs NEVER, not even for a split second, think that we are dogs. Advocates of the "Alpha Wolf" training methods clearly sell our domestic dogs short. Stare-downs, roll-overs and punishment are potentially dangerous training methods and can increase a dog's fearfulness or aggression.
If your dog bristles or cowers when you make eye contact, you need to de-program the behavior. Work in a quiet indoor area. Use tasty food rewards to reinforce eye contact. With patience, your dog will learn that only good things happen when she makes eye contact with you. Fearfulness will diminish and her overall attitude will improve.
Handlers and dogs are, in reality, a well-trained team. This teamwork requires close communication, and eye contact is every bit as important as vocal commands and hand signals. The time you invest in developing eye contact will be well rewarded with higher levels of performance from your dog.
In parting, I encourage all dog owners to check out the website aspca.org/toxicplants. You may discover that some of those beautiful plants in your garden can be harmful to your dog. Enjoy the summer safely!