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Teaching Your Dog To Defer to You

We continue our discussion of deference and start the training.

After a bit of a sabbatical on posting, I wanted to pick back up on the last posting titled, "". In that post we talked about your dog learning to defer to you in situations where they are either fearful or unsure of how to act versus taking matters into their own paws.

The key to all this is a simple as eye contact. As I've previously said, whatever your dog is looking at is what they are thinking about. That means that if the dog across the street is what they are looking at (and barking at) then we are not in the equation at all. We're usually forced at this point to do something to get attention like yanking on the leash or yelling all of which our dog perceive as a punisher reinforcing to our dog that the dog across the street must be a scary threat indeed.

What we want to have happen is that at the first sign of the threat or the something our dog wants or wants to get to, our dog were to look at us, it gives us then the opportunity to direct them to some other behavior or to stay connected with us.

To accomplish this, requires training for the dog and also a commitment from us to be connected to our dog. I see far too many people who when out on a walk are in their own heads and not connected to their dog. I see dogs looking to their owner for guidance and getting none, act simply out of need.

So lets begin on the dog end of the leash by teaching eye contact. First, from now on, anytime your dogs looks at you, honor it. Tell them good dog! Reward them with a treat you whip out of your pocket as by magic. This might even be just chilling on the couch. If you start looking for it, you'll be surprised how often your dog looks at you for information. 

If your dog is new to you or your dog is triggered into aggressive displays during direct eye contact then go slow. If your dog is exhibiting avoidance behaviors such as unwillingness to really look at you, be patient. At first, accept glances at your chin, nose, and “shape” the behavior up towards your eyes. Another strategy with dogs that aren’t comfortable with direct eye contact is to blink rapidly so that you aren’t staring at them. You can also shift your eyes to make direct eye contact and then immediately shift  away. 

Here's an exercise to do: Start by standing in front of your dog and bring a treat towards your dog's nose from your nose and then back again to your nose. When your dog looks at you (of course they are following the treat), say "Good Dog!" and then deliver the treat to them. By the way, soft treats are always best for training. I like to use pieces of string cheese or chicken.

Next have two treats. One you'll hold under your chin. That's the delivery treat. A second treat will be in your other hand, that's the bait. Show your dog the bait treat and then hold it out to the side of your body. What we're looking for is your dog to look at the treat and then to look at you as if to say, "Mom/Dad, can I have that?". The moment they look at you, deliver the treat from under your chin (not the one held out) and say, "Good Dog!". Repeat this exercise and switch hands.

What we are teaching here is simply, if you want something, you have to ask for it and looking me in the eyes is how we ask for things. As your dog gets better and better at this we can up the ante by holding our two treats or even holding the treats behind our back (be sure your dog knows you have them in your hands).

Put eye contact in every context. This is the key to making every interaction with your dog “count”. If he wants to go outside-wants to be fed-wants to get on your lap-wants some loving-etc. Give me eye contact and I’ll give you what you want. This technique encourages your dog to notice something in the environment that interests him and instead of having direct access to it, to look at you for input. To put it in technical terms, through classical and operant conditioning (association and consequence learning), the distraction becomes an antecedent (cue) to involve himself with you.

Practice every day for three to five minutes of formal "training" and always, for the things your dog wants. See if you can work up to longer and longer sustained eye contact and don't forget to smile!

In our next posting we'll take this training "on the road".

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Scott Shwarts August 06, 2012 at 02:19 PM
I also wanted to add, that when doing these eye contact exercises, don't cue or ask for the eye contact (don't call your dog's name or make noises etc), just wait with a smile on your face for your dog to offer the eye contact. We want them to use their brains!
Lynda August 07, 2012 at 12:19 PM
Thanks for another informative column, Scott. Two questions: If more than one adult (or older child) uses eye contact methods, do dogs react to each person in the same way or will dogs respond to each adult/older child differently? Can you use eye contact with a dog you know such as a friend's dog without worrying about a bad reaction?
Scott Shwarts August 07, 2012 at 12:31 PM
Lynda: Good question. Depending on the experiences the dog has had with each family member, you indeed can get different results. Often I'll see one family member can get sustained eye contact while another only gets fleeting. We have to remember that eye contact for primates comes naturally (in face we react when people don't). For a dog, it's something they need to be taught. Dog to dog, direct eye contact can be perceived as a threat. While I would never stare at or try to make direct sustained eye contact with a dog I don't know, doing eye contact exercises (we come in peace with cookies!) should be fine if the dog seems to be enjoying it. Training should be fun for all those involved. If it's not, it can become a punishment instead.
Lynda August 08, 2012 at 03:53 AM
Thanks, Scott. I always learn something from your columns. And I could put it to good use if my 12 yr old standard poodle didn't believe she is the smartest one in the family! Fortunately when we adopted her at age two, she came with her own set of good behaviours which she has patiently tried to teach us for the last 10 years.

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