Controlling Your Dog

The Training Game

Although how your dog behaves is serious business, and you are serious about him behaving appropriately, training doesn’t have to be a dull and serious chore. Approach the teaching of your commands as a game. Right away, this fosters a positive attitude in your dog toward learning new things, and creates a desire to work for you.

There is a simple training game you can play with your dog to get your training started. Along with being fun and easy, it teaches you how to use your CR and shape a basic behavior. As a bonus, it builds the relationship between you and your dog, and lays the foundation for other exercises.

Eye Contact

Along with teaching your dog that paying attention to you pays off for her, eye contact is the foundation for several other commands. It is essential as part of your leadership program, and is an absolute necessity for modification of fear or aggression. Here are the steps to take:

  1. To start, take your (at least mildly) hungry dog and a bunch of tiny, yummy treats to a low-distraction room. With a handful of treats in each hand, charge your CR — click or say your CR word (“Yes!”) and give your dog a treat — 5 or 6 times, alternating which hand you use to give your dog the treat.
  2. Hang your arms and hands naturally at your sides in between repetitions, keeping your hands still with the treats safely in your fist. After you have CR/treated 5 to 6 times, just wait patiently (and quietly!) while you watch your dog’s eyes. Most dogs will try looking at your hands, maybe licking or pawing at your hands, perhaps barking at you — whatever your dog does to try to get the treats, ignore it and keep your hands still. In pretty short order, most dogs will at last glance up at you, as if to say, “What’s the holdup, where’s the next treat?”
  3. The moment your dog makes eye contact with you, CR/treat. Repeat 5 to 10 times.

After the first few times your dog gets CR/treated, you may see the light bulb go off as your dog figures out what is actually being rewarded. You’ll know he’s figuring it out when he gives up all the extra behaviors he was trying to get the treats. Quit the session after a success and while your dog still wants to play.

If he never makes eye contact during your session, you can try making the tiniest noise to get him to look up at you — a soft kiss, tongue click, or whistle is usually enough. CR/treat even though you had to help. Repeat a couple of times, and then give him another chance to do it on his own.

It can seem like a long time when you’re waiting, but do try to wait at least 20–30 seconds before helping. If he wanders away, keep him on his dragline and step on it to keep him fairly close to you. Have at least two to three eye contact training sessions a day until you can barely give him the treat before he’s throwing his eye contact back to you. For most dogs this happens in the matter of a few sessions.

Put It on Command

Now that your dog knows what the deal is, you’re ready to name the command.

Start your session as usual, charging your CR, and CR/treating voluntary eye contact 5 times, alternating hands. As soon as you’ve given him the fifth treat, insert your eye contact command (Look and Watch are popular choices — you can call it anything you want as long as you are consistent). Basically, you are just slipping your command in before he does what you know he’s going to do. Repeat 5 times, using your command right after the previous treat and before he looks back to you.

Continue having at least two to three sessions a day using your command. After a few days, test it around the house by giving the command, and CR/treat when your dog responds correctly. Only give the command once. If he looks, he gets a CR/treat. If not, he missed his chance for reinforcement this time. Don’t let him teach you to beg him for his attention!

Continue having at least two to three sessions a day using your command. After a few days, test it around the house by giving the command, and CR/treat when your dog responds correctly. Only give the command once. If he looks, he gets a CR/treat. If not, he missed his chance for reinforcement this time. Don’t let him teach you to beg him for his attention!

Make It More Challenging

Now that you have named the command, it’s time to make the exercise more challenging by adding duration and distraction. Work on each challenge separately. To add duration, start your session the way you normally do, but after a few repetitions, wait for your dog to maintain eye contact for a few seconds before you CR/treat. Add duration by doubling the time required for your dog to maintain eye contact for several repetitions, and then make it easier again. So you might do your repetitions like this:

  • 1 second
  • 2 seconds
  • 4 seconds
  • 8 seconds
  • 2 seconds

Quit for that round, and give your dog a few minutes to think about it before you start your next session with:

  • 2 seconds
  • 4 seconds
  • 8 seconds
  • 15 seconds
  • 4 seconds

When your dog is committed to holding eye contact with you, it’s time to add distraction. Start by holding your arms straight out from your sides at the shoulder (so you look like a “T”). If your new position isn’t distracting enough, wiggle your fingers. CR/treat for watching you, not your fingers. When he’s good at that, alternate dropping treats from your outstretched hands (be ready to step on the treat if your dog dives for it — his only opportunity for reinforcement comes from eye contact).

When you can’t get him to fall for the falling treats, take your show on the road. Start right outside the door, then at the mailbox, then at the corner, and so on, gradually increasing the distraction level. Recruit helpers to distract him by walking in a circle around you. Have them start at whatever distance your dog can maintain eye contact and have them move gradually closer until they’re practically touching you. When he can handle that, add some distance again, but have them carry, then squeak, a toy.

Winning the Training Game

It’s easy to win the training game by setting your dog and yourself up for success. The way you’ll get each behavior will vary, but if you are consistent, you can teach your dog to do virtually anything reliably. To help your dog win the game, build on success rather than trying to undo failure by making sure he is solid at one level before progressing to the next, but raise your criteria often. If he gets confused or the distraction is too much for him to overcome, back up to the last step where he was successful. Remember to switch to first a variable, then random schedule of reinforcement when your dog is competent at each level.

You’re really winning the game when you can integrate training seamlessly into your lifestyle. Practice is vital to your success. Find ways to make your life with your dog easier, like teaching her to sit and give you eye contact as a way to ask permission for access to privileges. If necessary, wake up 10 or 15 minutes earlier a couple of times a week to have a little uninterrupted time with her.

Out for a walk? Stop every 5 minutes for a brief training break, choosing a different exercise to work on during each break. Interrupt play sessions with a single command, like “Down,” make sure it happens, and go back to playing. Over time, your dog will start to respond faster so she can get back to playtime. Spend two or three minutes before her mealtimes working on a command she’s struggling with. She’ll be extra motivated to comply.

Getting the idea? Be creative and figure out what works for you, your dog, and your life!

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