Being able to get your dog’s attention and to focus on you can be a very valuable skill. If you are on a walk and need to move your dog out of the way quickly, the ability to re-direct his attention can be super helpful. The “Watch Me” cue is a super cheap (meaning easily attainable) skill that with practice can be used in any number of scenarios.
Building a “Watch Me” cue is simple to start. As with any new behavior, you want to begin in a low distraction environment and move up to more distractions. Over time, you can build in duration, meaning how long your dog holds eye contact with you. To start, you take a small piece of food and hold it between you thumb and index finger next to your eye or in between your eyes. I’ve done it both ways and have become convinced that it doesn’t matter and I feel silly holding it between my eyes, so I do it to the side. To begin, you may need to draw your dog’s attention to you by drawing the food up from his nose to your face, but in many cases, simply making some kissy noises will cause him to look up at you. With your hand in position, as soon as your dog makes eye contact, you want to mark “Yes! (or click) and then reward from that hand. Your timing needs to be good, so be sure you are marking the exact moment the dog makes eye contact and not when he is looking away.
When you are first building the behavior, you’ll feed (reinforce) from the hand that you have held next to your eyes. As your dog becomes more reliable, you will fade the food, simply point and reinforce from the other hand. Once you have solid eye contact for the hand signal, you’ll add the cue “Watch Me!” Remember- we don’t name the behavior until the dog has something to attach it to, and in this case, we are looking for eye contact when you point towards your eyes.
The terminal goal of a behavior such as Watch Me (you can also call it “Look!”, just be sure all family members are using the same word), is to be able to have your dog maintain focus on you for an extended period of time. You can use it on walks, for check-ins and helping to keep the leash slack or if you are in a busy location where maintaining focus will help keep your dog from looking for crumbs (or potentially dangerous items on the ground) or reacting to other dogs or people who may be passing in close proximity. Many times, we get a bonus sit that comes along for the ride, but that doesn’t have to be a requirement. Watch Me allows you the opportunity to bring your dog’s attention back to you easily once it’s been practiced and reinforced, moving from low distractions to higher distractions. An example of a high distraction environment is a new one, with lots of new smells and sights and one in which you may just see a great photo opportunity because your dog’s ears are blowing amazingly in the wind, like this picture of my dog, Savannah!
Another great re-direction cue is “Touch”, but rather than re-write the book on that one, we’ll just point you to our favorite piece on it, by Modified K-9
Re-direct cues are super helpful tools to have in your bag of tricks. In addition to help building impulse control. they can come into play in more than a few “Get Out of Dodge” situations. Remember, practice makes perfect and behaviors need to be built in steps that are do-able for your dog. Set your expectations accordingly, and you’ll be setting both of you up for success!