Getting a lively dog to pay attention to his owner can seem like an impossible task.
Some Labradors are pretty full of themselves. Everything they do is ‘me, me, me…’
This can sometime be a bit tiresome for you as an owner, no matter how much you love your dog.
The self-centred dog pushes his weight around, barges through when you open a door for him, gobbles up his dinner as soon as his plate hits the floor, hurls himself at the front door when you pick up his lead, and so on.
This Labrador’s world revolves around him, not you, and he very rarely focuses his attention firmly and calmly on you, long enough for you to communicate with him.
What is the point?
Very often, dogs pay little attention to their owners, because they find so many other things more rewarding.
These dogs have learnt that there is not much point in even looking at their owners.
Because when they do, nothing great ever seems to happen.
The secret to overcoming this obstacle is to teach your dog that giving you some attention, is a really rewarding thing to do
Its the little things that count
During the course of each day, there are dozens of things you do for your dog that he likes.
From giving him his dinner, to stroking his ears, to opening the door for him to charge out into the garden, to throwing his ball, to putting his lead on for a walk. And much more.
Often these are simple, little things, that you barely notice you are doing. Opening the car door ready for your walk, picking up your car keys, getting some food out of the cupboard.
Each of these things is meaningful and rewarding for the dog because they predict that something good is about to happen in his world.
You can start using these things, all of them, to teach your dog that you are pretty special.
Getting his attention
You can do this very simply by teaching your dog, that nothing good happens until he looks you squarely in the face and gazes at you for at least three seconds.
You’ll need to build this three seconds up in stages, beginning with the briefest glance. And the only way to do this effectively is to use a signal that marks those first brief glances, so that your dog actually knows what you want him to do.
You will identify the behaviour you want, by making a ‘marker sound’ when he looks at you. To begin with you will make the sound the very second he glances at your face, no matter how briefly.
But as he gets the hang of it, you will start making the marker sound only after he has held your gaze for a bit. Just a second at first, then building up gradually to two seconds, then three.
What sound shall I use?
An ideal marker for a dog training session, is usually a click from a clicker.
But because you are going to be making this sound whenever the right situation presents itself (rather than within a specific training session), and may not always have a clicker to hand, I suggest you use a word.
I use the word ‘Good!’ in quite a distinctive and upbeat way, that my dogs know means ‘you just got that right’ . Its a bit like a verbal ‘thumbs up’
How do I get that first glance?
To start with you may need to do something to get his attention. Clicking your tongue, clapping your hands, tapping something, making a silly noise.
Whatever it takes.
Make sure your ‘attention getting noise’ does not sound like your marker word as this would be confusing for the dog.
If you have time, simply wait for the dog to look at you. He will eventually, though with some self obsessed dogs, you may have a long wait!
When your dog waits at the kitchen door to be let out, you probably normally put your hand on the handle at which point he starts to push at the door, ready to rush through as soon as a gap appears.
You would normally open the door for him whilst he is focused on the door itself. But this time you will have decided not to reward him by opening the door until he looks at you.
Your dog is not likely to look at you straight away. Many dogs will begin by staring intently at the door for a long time as if ‘willing it’ to open.
My preferred strategy is just to wait the dog out, until he becomes bored and looks up to try and puzzle out what on earth you are playing at.
However, you can encourage that first look with a random sound if you want to. Get ready to give him your marker ‘Good!’ the very second he glances at your face.
Rewarding his attention
Once you have received that first glance and ‘marked’ it with your marker word, you must follow that marker quite quickly with a reward. You must do this every time. Otherwise the marker will lose all relevance to the dog.
In most cases, the reward is the thing that your Labrador is waiting for you to do. The thing that until now, you simply did without thinking.
In our example above, the reward will be the act of opening the door. As soon as he looks at your face, you say ‘Good!’ and immediately afterwards, open the door.
The marker word is very important because the delivery of the reward to the dog (eg creating a gap big enough for him to pass through) is rarely instant and precise.
Very often by the time you have pulled the handle sufficiently to open the door, the dog will be firmly focused on the door again and without the marker would believe his reward (pushing through the gap) was for staring at the door itself.
With the use of the marker word, the dog is able to understand that the thing he is being rewarded for is looking at you.
Building on your success
Don’t restrict your control of ‘things your dog likes’ to one activity. It is important that you include lots of different rewarding activities, before which the dog must look at your face.
Once the dog has grasped the concept of looking at you to get what he wants, you can start to be more demanding and insist he looks at you for longer periods.
Once you have your three second ‘gaze’ you can if you wish, give it a ‘name’ or ‘command’. You can start to say ‘watch me’ as the dog is looking at you.
You can then use this new ‘command’ at other times, not just when he wants something that you used to give him for free.
Just remember, if you use the Watch Me! command at other times, you must be prepared to give the dog a reward of some sort. A tiny edible treat is idea.
If you fail to reward him for obeying the Watch Me! command very often, the behaviour will start to become unreliable.
Watch Me! is a fun command and very easy to teach and to incorporate into your daily routines together.
This article was originally published in 2011. It has been updated and revised.