Maggie Blutreich, CPDT
There are many good reasons to teach your dog to look at you when you ask him to do so. The first that springs to mind is that you will certainly have the attention of any dog who is looking at you. That makes it easier to ask Frisky to do something else like, perhaps, sit. A wonderful side benefit of "watch" is that Frisky is no longer engaged with anything else. He's tuned in to you!
As with all other things we teach our dogs, it's important to set Frisky up to
succeed from the very beginning. Plan to take your dog into a distraction free area at his regular meal time. The kitchen will usually work well, providing no other pets or family members are present.
1. You can LURE Frisky into looking at you by moving a bit of food from near his
nose toward your face. MARK each success with a click and treat. If you are not
using a clicker, use some marker word like, "Yes!" prior to giving Frisky his pay
check. Since any behavior that is rewarded tends to be repeated, hand feeding Frisky a few complete meals as pay checks -- one piece of kibble at a time -- will offer a terrific training opportunity for "watch" with lots of positive reinforcement.
2. Put this new behavior on CUE. Once you have a dog who actively seeks to look at your face -- perhaps even making eye contact -- you can name that behavior so you can request it, i.e., put it on cue. Decide on the word or sound you will use that means "look at me and good things will happen." So long as you are consistent in using the selected cue, it really doesn't matter if you say, "See here!" or "Watch me!" or simply make up a word or cluck your tongue. It's usually not best to use the dog's name.
3. Extend the DURATION of the behavior. Once Frisky looks you in the eye when
you ask, wait a split second before marking the behavior and rewarding him for doing so. You can gradually increase the length of time of Frisky's "watch" over the course of another few hand fed meals. As an aside, teaching "watch me" behavior is not something that lends itself to MODELING which would involve holding the dog's head while trying to force him into making eye contact. Most dogs would interpret this as a threat or even an attack which would unnecessarily stress shy or submissive dogs and overly stimulate sharp or aggressive ones.
Once Frisky will look at you on cue and maintain that look until you give him a
reward, a release signal or other direction, you can use his watch behavior in several practical ways. If he becomes nervous during his well check at the vet's office, you might use watch to distract him from being fidgety. It's much more rewarding for Frisky to maintain focus on your face than it is to be restrained or to twirl about frantically on the exam table. If Frisky is being shown in agility, conformation or obedience competition, his focus on you will improve his chances of winning. He doesn't really care about that ribbon or the points, but the praise and pay check from you are outstanding! One elegant use for WATCH is to establish it as an alternative behavior to an unwanted one. If Frisky loses his cool by being overly reactive toward strange people or other dogs -- roaring or lunging -- "watch" can become a genuine life saver.
Take several days or as much time as necessary to teach watch, put it on cue and build its duration as suggested above. When this is accomplished you can gradually change the cue by pairing the original cue for "watch" with whatever it is that triggers Frisky's unacceptable behavior. If the sight of a strange dog sends Frisky into a barking fit, you can begin with Frisky on lead in the back yard. Another family member can lead a dog well known to Frisky, a dog he does not react to, into view. The instant Frisky notices his buddy, you give the cue for watch. Maintain the duration of that watch while the friendly dog walks out of sight. Reward Frisky's success with a pay check, perhaps a bonus! After remarkably few repetitions, Frisky will automatically look to you and assume his "watch" behavior when he notices the other dog or strange person. Continue to practice with Frisky using several other dogs with whom he is comfortable. Use his hand fed meals as pay checks with some higher value food (bits of hot dog or cheese) included.
Practice in the house, in the back yard, in the driveway, on walks. Over time, bring the known dog closer to Frisky to help him understand that looking at you and maintaining the watch (even if his buddy is really nearby) is still very rewarding. All the dogs are always on leash throughout all exercises.
The next step will be to find a dog or person Frisky does not know and people willing to practice with you. In the beginning, keep the stranger or dog at Frisky's comfort distance (where he will not react) and practice as before. Move through this training as gradually as possible. If you have a dog who roars and lunges, you probably have a behavior that has been in place, well practiced for some time. It stands to reason that it will also take time to create an alternative response.
Remember, your main aim at this time is to avoid any repetition (rehearsal) of the
unwanted behavior. Your final goal is for Frisky to automatically look at you rather than to roar, lunge or engage in eye contact with the other dog.
As with any form of desensitization, counter-conditioning for Frisky, the outcome
depends almost entirely on the dog owner's unwavering attention. Your friends will surely understand why your attention is directed entirely to Frisky and forgive you for not particularly noticing their conversation. You can always give Frisky a break by putting him safely in the house or car and then reward yourself with the company of your own friends. After all, we're not that different from our dogs; we also respond to positive reinforcement!