One of the things that I've been working on with the dogs more recently is eye contact. It's such a seemingly small thing, but can have such a huge impact on training. I've had several conversations with people on the side lines of an obedience ring where we admire the rapt gaze of the dog on it's handler's face. How that attention never seems to waver. I've also had other conversations with people where we wondered if it was a breed thing (a lot of the dogs I see doing this are herding breeds), or if it was just how the dog was programmed. I am now definitely of the opinion that it has a whole lot to do with the training these handlers were doing with their dogs.
I never really thought about how they got to that point, I just kind of thought it was one of those things that you either have or you don't. Until an obedience lesson that we had a few weeks ago. Our instructor had me doing some focus exercises with Heffner a few times and I think I just wasn't entirely getting it. Things weren't quite going the way they should have and I'm pretty sure now it was because things weren't clicking in my head. It wasn't until she brought out her new puppy and was doing a little bit of focus work with him that I actually got it. I was amazed that this little puppy, who was only a few weeks old, could have such rapt attention on his handler while outside in a very distracting area with a completely new person next to him. And he's a french bulldog to boot! Not a breed who is known for being terribly malleable.
I've started out small and we're working our way up and I am really pleased with the results that I'm getting so far. What I'm doing is placing a bunch of goodies in both of my hands. I start by hanging my closed hands at my sides with the dog sitting in front of me. Whenever the dog makes eye contact with me, I immediately say yes and they get a cookie. We do this several times. Usually the dogs pick up on it pretty quickly. Though Heffner, the food whore, took several tries before he started catching on to what I wanted. And their eye contact is unprompted by me. I just stand there silently until they make eye contact.
The next step I took was holding my hands behind my back. Bess caught on immediately and Heffner caught on a little faster than he did with my hands at my side. After that I stood there with my arms out stretched to either side of me. That was pretty difficult for Heffner. He wanted to keep looking back and forth between my hands. So I had to be really quick with the yes and the treat for the moments of eye contact that I was getting.
As I said, Bess caught on to this really fast. And I'm terribly surprised. When we practice stays, she usually maintains eye contact with me while she's in the sit or down. Now though, she will practically bore holes into my eyes when we do it. I've increased the duration of eye contact required for her before she gets the cookie and she totally gets it. I love it!! Heffner is even really starting to catch on, though I can tell that he still really wants to watch my hands.
The benefits are amazing! With Bess, especially when she knows that I've got treats on me some where, her fall back response when we're just hanging out or waiting for something is to look me in the eye and just stare me down. Last night in agility we worked that a lot. While other dogs were running and we were just hanging out, I would look just over her head and off to the side. I could tell that she was trying to make eye contact. I would wait for a bit, then make eye contact, tell her yes and give her a treat. She was totally into it! This better focus that she's getting is spilling out into other things as well. Our heeling is getting better with her making more eye contact. She pretty much automatically looks me in the face when we halt. She's just getting so much more attentive that I have these happy little mental pictures of us one day being one of those teams that I have envied. I now feel like that is something that is eventually attainable for me.
It's also benefiting Heffner as well. He's starting to make eye contact more. While we've done plenty of focus games in the past to redirect him and keep him from reacting negatively to things, this is a little different. He has to be totally in tune to me. Not to what's in my hand. He needs to make eye contact with me and hold it until I release him. It's something that he's getting the concept of and I know that it will benefit us all over the place. I try to work it into every day opportunities more so than with Bess. I always put him in a sit stay shortly before he gets each meal. Previously I used to time him for the stays. Now I stand in front of him, wait for him to look away, and as soon as he comes back to me and looks me full on in the eyes, I release him and he gets to eat. He's catching on to that nicely!;o)
Plus, it just feels good! I feel totally in sync with my dogs when we're looking at each other like that.