To train this behaviour, you will need medium to high-value treats, a treat bag, a 2 metre lead, a harness and, ideally, a helper. Training should be done for 5-10 minutes, 2-3 times a day and as consistently as possible.
As with all training, we will start at home in a very low-distraction ( just you and your dog, ideally) environment and gradually build up.
Training Automatic Eye Contact Part 1.
Take several of your treats in an open hand. Pass this open hand under your dog’s nose (quickly enough to not let him/her get them) and then up, raising your hand high enough that it is out of reach of your dog. It’s easiest if you have your arm raised straight out about chest level, (so you look like the letter “t”). Do this in one fluid movement and end by standing tall (your neighbours will probably be thinking you’ve lost the plot).
First (almost) eye contacts
Wait while your dog (probably) stares at the hand with the food for a few seconds, trying to work out how to get it from you. It’s important that you stand very still and don’t help your dog in any way. The idea of this exercise is that dog will automatically look at you, not you prompting your dog to check in, so it’s essential to stand still and smile. The second your dog looks away from the food and toward your face, mark with your marker word/clicker and reward your dog. Try and be as precise as possible with your marker. At this early stage, a look that is roughly towards your face or even just a glance is good enough.
Repeat step 2 until your dog doesn’t look at the food at all but, instead, looks at you. Mark and reward – this is what we are aiming for. Repeat 5 – 10 times before rounding off with something easy like a ‘sit’ and then releasing your dog with an ‘OK’ to start a game.
Keep practicing with your dog in different positions such as in front of you or to the side. Also, try switching hands with the food so that your dog understands that checking in with you is a good thing, no matter which hand the food is in, or where you are standing. Aim to practice at this level for about 5-10 rewards, and then take a break.
Direct Eye Contact
The next step will be to build this exercise towards your dog making more direct eye contact not just looking away from the food.
Again, pass the food past your dog’s nose, but this time you will have food in both hands. Your dog should then look back and forth trying to guess the correct answer. If your outstretched hands are at chest level, they will have no choice but to look toward your face as they shift back and forth between your two hands. Mark the moment you get eye contact even if it is just a tiny eye shift toward your face. Don’t aim for precision yet, we want your dog to be successful. If this isn’t working go back a few steps. Once you your dog is successfully making eye contact most of the time move on to step 5.
Increasing The Duration of Eye Contact
Go back to the treats in just one hand again. This time, after your dog makes eye contact, delay your marker word or click for 1 second, as long as he keeps looking at you. Do this one-second eye contact for 5-10 repetitions. From there, you can add more time as you train. Be sure to mix it up and sometimes mark or click fast, while other times hold out for slightly longer periods. If at any point your dog seems confused, make the time shorter for a couple of rounds, and then gradually add a little more time.
Reducing the Cue
Once your dog can hold eye contact for several seconds it is time to be less exaggerated with the food in your hands. This is to help your dog learn to make eye contact with you all the time, not just when you are standing with your arms out to your sides.
Start with introducing a more subtle arm movement by holding the hand with the food in front of your stomach area, rather than out from your side. After you show your dog the treats in your hand, close your fist around the treats and bring your hand up to your stomach area. As before, mark or click and reward when your dog looks away from your hand and looks up to make eye contact.
Increasing the Challenge
Once this is working try putting your hands behind your back or in a pocket to further increase the challenge. Finally, work on not having any food in your hands (have your rewards in a treat pouch, on a counter or on a table) and wait for the eye contact then follow through with your marker word or click and reward.