Being able to get your dogs attention is a critical building block for all other obedience commands. If your dog won’t look at you then chances are they aren’t listening to you either. You want your dog to know that awesome things happen when they pay attention to you! Therefore, teaching your dog to focus should be one of the first skills you build.
You’ll want to teach your dog a simple cue that tells them to look at you. Some people use “Watch me” or “Look at me” but I prefer simple one word commands. My preferred cue is to teach your dog “Focus”.
A well trained “Focus” cue will allow you to grab your dogs attention even in distracting situations. This is helpful when teaching obedience, loose leash walking, or when they’re overwhelmed in distracting situation. “Focus” allows you to get your dogs attention and eye contact so that they actually hear & see what you want them to do next! It is also a great way of teaching your dog to voluntarily check in with you.
In this article we will cover:
- How to teach your dog to “focus”
- Increasing the difficulty of the skill
- Troubleshooting issues you may have
Note: Using a marker word like “Yes” will help your dog learn this quicker. To learn how to properly load one, read this.
How to teach your dog to focus:
- Pick a location and set yourself up. Sit on the ground with your dog sitting in front of you in a quiet room without distractions. Hold a treat in your fingers.
- Lure your dogs eyes with the treat. As soon as your dog notices the treat, raise the treat up directly in front of your eyes. Your dogs gaze should follow the treat. As soon as they make eye contact for even a half second mark that behavior with “Yes!” and give them the treat.
- Add the cue word “focus”. Repeat steps 1-2 a few times until your dog is reliably making eye contact quickly. Then start saying the “focus” cue word as you lift the treat to your eyes.
- Phase out the treat lure. Time to make it a bit harder! Next, say “Focus” without a treat in your hand, but raise your index finger up in front of your eyes. Your dogs gaze should follow your finger. As soon as they make eye contact, give them a treat with your other hand. You’ve now taught your dog the verbal and hand signal cue for “focus” (Note: If their gaze does not follow your finger, go back to practicing with the treat lure a few times).
- Phase out the hand signal. Time to try it without the hand signal! Say “Focus” and wait for your dog to make eye contact. As soon as they hold your gaze for a half second say “Yes!’ and give treat. Slowly increase the duration until they can maintain eye contact for 5 seconds.
Increase the difficulty!
- Once your dog solidly understands the verbal cue “Focus” and holds your gaze for a few seconds work towards standing up. Start with sitting a bit farther from your dog while asking for “Focus”. Then work towards kneeling, crouching, and eventually asking for a “Focus” while you’re standing. If your dog struggles, go back to the last step where they were successful and practice more. This can take time to learn! Always reward successful tries.
- Once you’d bet $100 your dog would make eye contact when asked to at home, slowly increase the distraction level of the environment. Start teaching your dog to focus in harder areas so that you can eventually use it to grab their attention in high distraction settings. Start asking for your dog to focus in more difficult scenarios at home. Try in rooms with other people around, while your dog is busy chewing or interested in something else, or when they’re walking away from you. Remember, as you increase the distraction you may need to use the verbal cue and hand signal combined to grab your dogs attention.
- Once you have proofed “focus” in your home start teaching your dog to “focus” on walks. Eventually the skill can be used to get your dogs attention away from squirrels, loud noises, or other dogs!
Troubleshooting difficulties with teaching your dog to focus
- If you’re having difficulty getting your dog to focus on you, try using a higher value treat! I never recommend using kibble for obedience training. Your dog is working for you, so reward them with something worthwhile. Try rewards like liver treats, boiled chicken, or cheese.
- Eye contact can be challenging for dogs! It sounds silly, but try smiling as you make eye contact to decrease intimidation.
- Remember that not every dog likes sustained eye contact. If you notice your dog quickly glancing away after meeting your eyes, it’s likely them trying to send calming signals. Keep focus sessions short, upbeat, and positive. Give your dog time to understand that eye contact with you isn’t intimidating.
Teaching your dog to focus and pay attention to you in a variety of settings is an incredibly useful skill! Remember to progress the difficulty of what you’re asking slowly so that sessions remain positive and stress-free.
Happy training! 🙂
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