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Getting a dog’s attention, particularly when they’re new to training, is the first step to teaching any behavior. If your dog isn’t looking at you, chances are they aren’t listening to you either. But how do you get your dog to look at you when you want, especially when you are dealing with distractions nearby? Simply teach your pup a cue that tells them to look at you. “Watch me,” “look,” or “look at me” can all work well as verbal cues to catch a dog’s attention.
Why You Should Teach a “Watch Me” Cue
A “watch me” cue allows you to control your dog’s focus, which is essential during training sessions. Influencing where your dog is looking will increase your success, particularly with lure-and-reward training (where you lure a given behavior with a treat or toy) or teaching hand signals. A dog that isn’t looking simply won’t see what you’re doing. But one who watches you is waiting to see what you’ll ask for next.
Getting your dog’s attention is also valuable in everyday life. For example, it’s common to give your dog instructions, like to lie down on a mat when visitors come in the door or sit before you get dinner. Getting your dog’s focus first, especially when there are exciting things competing for their attention, can greatly increase obedience. A “watch me” cue is also useful to redirect your dog away from distractions. If you want to pass another dog on a walk, asking your dog to look at you, instead of the other dog, will make it easier to walk on by.
Finally, not all dogs are comfortable with eye contact. Staring can be seen as threatening. Teaching your dog to look at your eyes can help relieve any stress associated with mutual gazing. Some dogs, on the other hand, love to stare into their owner’s eyes. It’s how they show affection. In fact, looking into their owners’ eyes releases oxytocin, the love hormone. The same thing happens to you when you stare into your dog’s eyes. So, encouraging mutual eye contact is a great way to build your bond with your dog.
How to Teach a “Watch Me” Cue
The easiest way to teach a “watch me” cue is to lure the behavior from your dog. If you make it obvious where you want your dog to look, it won’t take long for them to catch on. Start these exercises in a quiet environment so you’re easily the most interesting thing in the room. The following steps will help you lure your dog’s eye contact:
- Hold a treat in front of your dog’s nose.
- Slowly bring the treat up between your eyes. Your dog should watch the treat and be staring at your forehead.
- Mark your dog’s behavior with a clicker, a marker word like “yes,” or praise, then give your dog the treat.
- Repeat the above steps but reward your dog with a treat from your other hand instead.
- Repeat steps one to three with an empty hand, but still reward your dog with a treat when they make eye contact. It can help if you stink up your fingers first by rubbing them with a treat. You’ve now taught a hand signal for “watch me.”
- When your dog is reliably following the hand signal, start saying your verbal cue like “watch me” or “look” before you move your hand.
Now you’re ready to build a single distraction into your training. You will give your dog a choice of where to look — at you or at the treat. You want your dog to realize that the way to get the food is not to stare at it, but to pay attention to you instead. Follow these steps:
- Hold a treat to your dog’s nose then slowly move your hand out to the side of your body so your arm is straight. Your dog can now either stare at the treat or look at your eyes. Chances are the treat will win. Wait.
- Eventually, your dog will look at you to see what’s up. As soon as your dog looks towards your face, mark the moment and give them the treat.
- After several repetitions, your dog should begin to understand the correct choice. Now wait for direct eye contact before marking and rewarding.
- When your dog is reliably choosing to look at you instead of the treat, add your verbal cue like “Watch Me” before you place the treat out to the side.
If your dog isn’t food-motivated, use a toy instead and reward them with a fun game like tug-of-war or fetch. Remember that some dogs are uncomfortable with eye contact and will take longer to pick this up than others. Be patient and stay calm. If you notice your dog is deliberately looking away from you, be aware that they are likely not ignoring you. Rather, that’s dog-speak for “please calm down.” Take a break and try again when you can stay relaxed and upbeat with your dog.
Tips to Encourage Your Dog to Look at You
When your dog has mastered “watch me” in a quiet environment, start training in more and more distracting locations. If your dog fails to look at you, you’ve moved too far, too fast. Take a step back and practice some more. Eventually, your dog should find looking at you as rewarding as looking at anything else. Particularly if you’ve taught them that the way to good stuff is through you.
Be the source of your dog’s rewards and they will want to look at you to see when the next good thing is coming. In other words, ask your dog to sit before you give a chew bone or ask for a down before going for a walk. If they know that they’ll be rewarded by listening to you, your dog will naturally pay more attention to you.
Don’t forget not to take eye contact for granted. Any time your dog is choosing to look at you instead of something else exciting, reward that with praise, a treat, or even a cuddle. Let your dog know you’re somebody worth attending to and their eyes will always be on you.