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A Dog Trainers Knowledge of the Importance of Eye Contact

Let’s start with, what is the responsibility of a dog trainer? All dog trainers get into this business because of their desire to help dogs. Helping those dogs, as a trainer, inevitably means helping teach the owners of said dogs. Much the same as with motivating a dog to train, a trainer must also be able to motivate the owner to train with the dog. It is not nearly enough to take a dog for a few weeks to train and send it home. If the owners are unable to follow up with the training, the pup will very soon regress and the owners will be just as frustrated with their pup as they were before the training. Not a good impression for the trainer or the company he/she works for.

There is nothing more frustrating for the average dog owner than having a pup that will not look at them when called. There is nothing more satisfying than when your dog turns to you when called with those big questioning eyes. To train a dog and in the same breath to train a human, one must build their experience off small successes. That first step is a very easy one to determine, focus.

There is plenty of information on-line concerning the importance and meaning of eye contact with dogs. You can search “Eye Contact Dogs” and a plethora of information on the why and how it is good for you and your pup will pop up. You could also search “When is dog eye contact bad?” and similarly, a mass of information will be presented where issues may arise with a dog from too much, or ill-timed, eye contact. This blog assumes that you have already done some research or have experience with this abundantly represented information. What we are going to concentrate on is determining how eye contact will affect your initial decision making in the training process of dogs and their human counterparts.

“If you can get your dog to look at you, you can get him to listen”, a statement that I use in nearly every single training session with clients. The importance of eye contact cannot be emphasized enough.

The number one factor in having a well-mannered or a very well-trained dog (my opinion) is Focus. If your pup is paying attention to you, then the distractions that might cause your pup to misstep in any given situation can be largely negated. What exactly is ‘focus’? Yes, focus is certainly when your pup is aware of where you are, but specifically, it is when your pup is looking directly at you and making eye contact. Eye contact is the foundation to having superb focus on the handler. Without eye contact in the beginning, there is no true focus. Once a pup has learned to focus on you (started to bond with you), more advanced obedience is attainable. For the average dog owner, focus sets the stage for providing the dog with a structured life where it can thrive and the owners may be proud of the well-mannered pup they have. For the difficult pup, focus not only provides the basis for bringing structure into it's life but also promotes the bond needed for it to trust its owner. When considering doing dog sports with your pup, there is no winning without eye contact.

When teaching your pup ‘focus’, the end result should be to teach the pup three things; the pup’s name, to focus or pay attention to the handler, and what is largely missed by most trainers, eye contact with humans is a good thing!

First contact with a dog when conducting the initial evaluation;

Dogs can fall pretty much into three categories (there is a bit of gray area but not much), Neutral or normal dogs, Timid and Dominant dogs. The training for the neutral pup is relatively straightforward. The training for the timid dog will need to address the confidence issue(s) and the dominant pup will require more work in the leadership department. As a trainer, you will be interviewing first-time clients and their dogs to make an assessment on where to begin with the training.

The body language of a dog is without a doubt a big tell-tale sign of a dog’s nature. Understanding the body language of dogs will greatly increase your success with establishing the course of training. However, the one most significant sign is how a dog reacts to eye contact. Since eye contact for a dog can be directly related to a challenge, a show of dominance, its effect on the dog is invaluable information needed for every aspect of its training.

How does making eye contact with the dog in this first introduction impact training? The character of the dog needs to be determined and can be relatively easily identified by how the pup reacts to eye contact. With the client and dog in the interview room, the trainer walks in and approaches the dog intentionally making eye contact. The ‘normal’ pup will make eye contact for a few seconds and turn its gaze away not wanting to provoke hostility. It may just sit next to the parents or may willingly and with friendly intentions approach the trainer. The ‘timid’ dog may or may not allow eye contact. Regardless of eye contact, the timid dog will try to hide behind the parents or jump into the lap of the owner searching to escape confrontation. The dominant dog will lock eyes with you and not back down quickly, if at all. Sometimes the result of prolonged eye contact is aggressive behavior(s).

Regardless of the type of dog being worked with, Focus with eye contact IS the starting point and more important than any other aspect of the training.  It needs to be reinforced continuously, especially for those pups with trust issues. For the vast majority of the dogs, getting eye contact is easily accomplished. Food or prey (play) drive can be used effectively to draw the attention of the pup up to the eyes of the handler. With timely rewarding for the eye contact in conjunction with the pups name being called, very positive results can be seen almost immediately, even with mild distractions.

Teaching dog parents how to promote eye contact and therewith focus should always be a priority. It results in immediate success, a crucial element needed by both dog and handler for motivation. That motivation is necessary for the owners to go home feeling confident that the time, energy and cost of training their pup is worth it.

As with the topic of eye contact with dogs, and the reading of dog body language, there is a ton of information on-line describing how to get and maintain eye contact. There is no single best method but the ones that work best are those that address the three main aspects, Name, Focus and helping the pups understand that eye contact is not a challenge.

Work focus with eye contact and watch your pups and clients begin to smile. The road to success has just been widened.

For more information on how to train eye contact, we will post a Youtube video soon - stay tuned!

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