It is my contention that true teamwork between a dog and handler requires a solid understanding of eye contact--and that goes for both parties! It is not just important, it is indispensable.
With some dogs eye contact comes easily, with others not so easily. My Border Collies depend upon it, but I remember my Cattle Dog, Derby, had a difficult time accepting eye contact as a puppy. She would avert her head and turn away. Eventually she grew to understand that eye contact was not a threat, but a communication.
If you want a true team partner, it's imperative you communicate: and the eyes have it!
I once saw a cat show at the Wild Animal Park in Escondido, Ca., (now called Safari Park) where the trainer used only his eyes to instruct the cats. It was amazing. This trainer spoke to the audience via his mike, but used his eyes to direct the cat's behavior . Naturally all of the behaviors were inherent, nothing untoward, but nevertheless the strength of eye contact was powerfully apparent.
Teaching eye contact is actually rather easy, but like much in training, it takes patience, practice and consistency.
Begin close. Begin by sitting in a chair and having the dog sit between your legs. (With a small dog, you can sit on the floor or put the dog on a raised object, such as a grooming table.) With a treat held by both hands in front, take it to the dog's nose and draw his eyes up to yours by bringing the treat up to your face while giving a cue word, such as 'Look'. When he looks, praise and give him the treat.
As the dog's understanding develops, you can put the treat in your mouth (I use string cheese) and simply tap your temples as you say 'Look'. ALWAYS PRAISE! You want your dog to work for you, not the treat. Praise should be your primary reward.
Lengthen the amount of time you can sustain eye contact. I find that talking to my dog while holding eye contact very much helps my dog succeed. Furthermore, looking at me becomes desirable. This is a good thing:-)
Now stand up. This greater distance between your eyes will initially make success more difficult, but not insurmountable. Once again shorten the time you ask for eye contact so that your dog can make the transition more easily. Once established, again begin lengthening the amount of time you hold each other's gaze. Praise, talk, praise! You want your dog to WANT to look, not just have to.
Teaching Eye Contact
Now that your dog understands 'Look', add movement. What I like to do is make a chute with my Broad Jump boards, only wide enough for my dog to walk through. I put my dog in a 'wait/stay' at one end and situate myself about half way within the chute . Touching my temples and making eye contact, I say 'Look', then say 'Come' as I slowly back up.
Note: I will have either a treat in my mouth or a toy under my chin. In these beginning stages I will absolutely help my dog succeed!
When my dog reaches me I praise copiously and reward with a treat or toy and a great deal of hands-on petting. The chute, by the way, keeps my dog coming in straight, and later when I ask for a front/sit, the chute will help it be correct. Again, I try to do as much as I can for attaining the picture I ultimately want.
Making A Chute
Once my dog understands this game, I extend the distance between us. That my dog be looking at me as he comes in for any obedience recall puts the odds greatly in my favor that he nail his front. It also indicates that he is not being distracted and that he trusts in me. Both are essential for our performing as a team.
Teamwork requires that the members work in unison. In Obedience verbal communication is limited, as is unwarranted body language. But we still can make visual contact! We can smile with our eyes, reassure, build strength and confidence, let our canine companion know he is not alone, guide. We're a team.
HAPPY NEW YEAR, EVERYONE!
MAY YOU ALL FIND TRUE TEAMWORK AND GREAT SUCCESS!
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