In reward-based training there are a variety of training games designed to gain focus from your dog. Early on I learned to play the “Name Game,” which paired calling the dog’s name and eye contact, thus earning the dog a reward. I like this game, but the reality is, we say our dog’s names too much for it to be particularly effective, especially if you’re like me and have come up with no less than a thousand ways to say your dog’s name in cute silly ways. Millie is: MilMil, Meeweee, Meemee, Milwee, Millers, Mils, Millie Mills, Mildred… and the list goes on. Considering how much I say her name and how little I’m paring it with a behavior like eye contact followed by a reward, her name to her is simply noise and doesn’t illicit any particular response from her. I’m willing to bet you do this too.

So what would be another way to get your dog to check in and attend to you without saying their name over and over and over? As a trainer who has studied all manner of ways to teach focus in dogs, I can think of no less than five, but for the purposes of today’s post, we’ll just focus on one: Don’t Say Anything. Wait what?

Seriously, don’t say anything. You’re simply going to wait for your dog to check in with you, and when he does, you’re going to reward him with something he likes, like a yummy treat.

Here’s how to train it:

  1. Grab a handful of your dog’s favorite treat, hold your hands behind your back.
  2. Your dog will probably smell the treats, or maybe he saw you get them out of the treat jar. He’ll come over and investigate. Simply wait for your dog to look at you, keeping your hands behind your back.
  3. The instant your dog looks at your face (because your hands aren’t giving up the treat), say “Yes!” in a high, happy tone.
  4. Toss a treat on the floor to a) reward your dog for the click and b) to reset the game.
  5. Vary where you toss the treat and alternate between throwing the treat on the ground and offering from your hand to his mouth.
  6. Practice 1-2 times a day for 10-20 repetitions.  Repeat until your dog is reliably looking at your face/eyes to earn a yes/treat.

Troubleshooting: Beware of where your hands and treats are at all times. If your dog is fixated on your hands or treat pouch, simply move them out of sight. Pretty soon he’s going to look at you like “what the hell, man, where’re the treats?” At that exact moment, reward your dog!

Take every opportunity to reward your dog for checking in. Over time, the more your practice this with your dog, the more he’ll automatically check in. Start training this with yummy treats as rewards, and as your dog gets really good at it, you can alternate praise, pets, the throw of a ball, the tug of a rope, or anything your dog finds rewarding, as payment (reward) for checking in.

Mildred the Goldendoodle of Astoria, OR

Maybe it’s just her big dopey doodle face and big brown eyes, but I love when Millie opts to check in with me, and think that deliberately training this has impacted our bond significantly. When we go on walks, I generally don’t ask much of her and let her enjoy being a dog, but when she checks in with me she gets a big huge “thank you” because she’s making the choice to engage with me over all of the wonderful things in the environment. At home, if she opts to check in with me instead of chase a cat, it’s a win-win for everyone. Take some time to work with your dog on this simple, but effective skill or take a class with us to learn this and other focus-games to play with your dog!