How Important is Eye Contact in Training Your Dog?
I recently read an article that claimed that “As every good dog trainer knows, good eye contact and attention to the trainer is the cornerstone for effective training and is also a good indicator of the dog’s relationship with and trust of the trainer/owner; there are many studies that confirm this”.
Now, firstly I’d love to see the studies that confirm this. As I believe that this is actually what can be described as anthropomorphism. Why? Because most dogs find eye contact rude, challenging and intimidating. So why on earth would it be an indicator of relationship? Sometimes claims and reality are too far removed.
Now, these days eye contact is referred to as engagement. However, I’ve broken the concept of engagement up into two: Natural Engagement and Artificial Engagement. But what’s the difference?
Natural Engagement is where the dog chooses you over anything and anyone else because you are a team. It’s not based on toys and food rewards or even play. It’s simply based on your dog understanding that you are a place of safety, security that you will look out for their best interests and that they choose you because they truly want to be with you. This sort of engagement is not based on eye contact, but more where your dog chooses to be.
No matter what anyone else offers your dog, they will still choose you. If you go for a walk, your dog won’t be far away from you and will always come back to check up on you. Because your dog is naturally engaged with you. Of course your dog needs rules too, so that you can tell them that they’re not allowed to go off and chase every rabbit because it just might not be safe. Natural Engagement is where loyalty is developed.
Your dog can choose to go and say hi to other people, even play with them. But if you walked away, they would follow you and not stick around with the other person. Personally this is the kind of relationship I want. And this is the relationship that I have with Raven.
I might have made Natural Engagement sound amazing, but there’s definitely an important place for building Artificial Engagement. Now this is all about teaching your dog to have eye contact or stare at you! This is where you use food and toys and play to teach your dog a behaviour. And eye contact is important for that. Because you’re going to reward your dog’s eye contact with food or toys.
While artificial engagement does not build a deep relationship and it does not build loyalty, It does build motivation and drive and a working relationship based on pay for work done. It is great to use to teach your dog a sports performance and getting an amazing attitude towards the work you would like your dog to do. Artificial Engagement is also important in a group class situation. The dogs are generally too close even if you have natural engagement to rely on that.
But, artificial engagement alone does not build a deep relationship. If your dog was having fun playing with someone else and you walked away, they’d likely not follow because the fun is with the new person. And you have nothing better to offer. Your company isn’t as valuable to your dog as it is with natural engagement.
OK, so there’s a massive movement in dog training circles saying that play and training builds a relationship. And as any good dog trainer does, they test it. I tested it on two of my dogs: Kaz my GSD and Delta my Malinois. We had 3 training sessions a day that was 75-90% play and the rest training. I mean, my dogs looked engaged. They LOVED training. But, unfortunately, when there was something better going on, they were there with bells on leaving me to… well… you get the picture…
Anyway, fast-forward a few more years, and I started experimenting with clients dogs after having an epiphany one day – long story for another blog post. Anyway, I started testing my theory on clients dogs and then when I got my current Malinois puppy Raven we spent the first 6 months of her life working on natural engagement. We did no training, no playing (except a few short sessions one with the bones of a dead Pukeko teaching her that I’m not going to take the bones away using concepts I borrowed from play).
And Raven blossomed. Not only that but she developed into a stable, confident dog who is exceptionally loyal to me. And I love it! Especially as she was a bit independent when she first arrived, the natural engagement training was imperative to solidify our relationship. Not a relationship based on what I had for her, but a relationship based on helping her understand that it’s me and her against the world! And it’s FABULOUS having a dog like her to share my life with! And you can have that too!
What’s the Difference
In natural engagement you teach your dog that they have a responsibility to stay with you (and it’s actually done without food, toys, leashes or corrections if you want to know more about this training check out our Dog Geek Vault). This helps you to get a better recall while you’re out and about on a nature walk. It doesn’t stop your dog from sniffing and running around and even hunting (unless it’s something you’ve taught). But it does teach your dog that it’s important to keep an eye on you. In natural engagement you’re teaching your dog to have their mind on you. They’re doing this because of the safety and security of being in your pack.
In artificial engagement it’s all about teaching focus. And unwavering focus is even better. Your dog can’t sniff and explore and run around, because it’s incompatible with focusing on you. This type of engagement is all about the dog’s attention being on you. It’s all about your dog’s focus being on you. The dog is working for the food or toys or play and corrections is sometimes layered over this style of engagement. This has nothing to do with you. Only what you can provide the dog.
Want to Know More?
Teaching natural engagement is a difficult concept to do in a blog post or even on video just because of the process. Trust me, I’ve tried for years to capture it and I haven’t been able to.
So, the best way to learn more about Natural Engagement, I encourage you to get in contact with me and we can try and organise a private lesson with me here at SK9HQ. And I promise you that this is going to transform the way your dog looks at you weather they’re “just a pet” or your competition partner.
I’m looking forward to working with you!
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