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Contact exercises

It is very important to teach your puppy to initiate and maintain eyecontact with you, as the dog will learn to follow you and and not just the treats in your hand. Eyecontact will help you communicate with your dog without always having to use treats and lures. The dog will learn to do things for you because you are important to him and not just do things in order to get delicious treats.

The basic idea of eyecontact exercises is that by keeping an eye on your face instead of your hands, the dog will concentrate more on you and be more attuned to your commands. Good communication between handler and dog is the basis of any good working relationship.

There are many exercises which you can do. Here are a few which I have found to be very fast and easy to teach to all our dogs (I really cannot draw in Paint, sorry about that. The black blog is supposed to be a Newf puppy).

Exercise 1:

In the picture the dog is looking at the treat and not into your eyes. This is Not what we want. The dog is supposed to ignore the treat and concentrate on you alone.

This is the exercise that I prefer to start with.

1. You keep the treat at an arm's length and ask the dog to sit in front of you. Keep looking at the dog, do not look at the treat in your hands.

-At the beginning, the dog will stare at the treat just waiting for the reward for sitting. He may keep glancing at you wondering why he isn't getting a treat for just sitting or he may go through all the tricks she knows (sit, down, turn etc..) wondering what is expected. Just wait patiently until the dog looks into your eyes for instructions. You can call the dog by name the first few times you try the exercise, but stop calling as soon as he knows what is expected. The idea is that the dog learns to automatically look at you for instructions, without you having to call him.

-When the dog maintains eyecontact with you even for a nanosecond, praise the puppy a lot and give a reward. Make sure you start praising when he is looking at you and not the treat.

2. Repeat the exercise a few times, only asking the dog to maintain eyecontact for a few seconds to begin with.

3. When the puppy maintains the eyecontact for a few seconds, increase the time (eg by 2 seconds every time increase).

-If the dog keeps glancing between you and the treat, you can praise the dog verbally as he glances at you to let the dog know that eyecontact is what you want. However the nanosecond the dog looks away, stop the praise - even in midword. Do not tell the dog 'no' when he is looking at the treat, just wait patiently until you have the dog's undivided attention. When the dog stops glancing at the treat, and only concentrates on you, give the treat and praise the dog a lot!

-When I praise the dogs for waiting/eyecontact, I usually use a softer and calmer voice, so that the dogs know they are doing the right thing but do not get overly excited. I use the excited voice when the exercise is finished. However all dogs are individuals, so see what works best with your dog.

4. Repeat a few times and then increase the time by a few seconds again.

-The idea is that you always push the dog's limits bit by bit. However make sure you do not try too much too fast. If you feel that the time limit you have set for the dog is too much, backtrack and start again with shorter time periods.

This is a very good exercise to do just before you give the food. I usually make the pups sit, and then keep the food bowl at an arm's length and only when they only concentrate on me and not the food, will I place the food in front of them. I still do this exercise with the adults, although they know how to maintain contact for minutes now - even when I have prime porkchops in the foodbowl!

This is also a very good exercise for when you let the dog off-leash. Ask the dog to sit and only when he has eyecontact, take the leash off (You don't need to hold your arm vertically for this ;-) ) . As an additional training tip: it would be a good idea to have a 'release' command, such as 'free' or 'go on' so that the dog knows the exercise is finished and he can go and play or start eating.

Exercise 2:

One very good contact exercise is the “disappearing act” that we like to do while on walks in the forest.

1. When the dog is too far ahead and not paying any attention to you, find a big tree/obstacle and hide behind it.

-Once the dog realized you are missing, he should and quite likely will actively start looking for you.

2. For the first few times, call the dog so that he does not start panicking when he cannot find you.

3. Praise a LOT when the dog finds you in your hiding place.

4. Every time the dog is not paying attention to you, hide behind a tree/obstacle. When the dog knows the exercise, you don't need to call the dog when you hide.

The idea is that the dog learns to keep an eye on you, so you don’t have to keep an eye on the dog. This will make your off-leash walks a lot more pleasant as you don’t have to have eyes in the back of your head and can just relax and trust the dog to keep up.

(I think I like Paint, though the pictures are a bit odd to say the least)

Exercise 3:

Another very good contact exercise if your dog does not want to initiate eyecontact is to try and get the dog interested in what you are doing.

1. Turn your back to the dog, crouch down and start ‘digging’ the ground e.g. with a stick or with your hand. Pretend you are having the time of your life.

-Pay no attention to the dog, just concentrate on what you are doing, head down. Do not even glance back or call the dog, he is air to you.

2. Wait patiently for the dog to come to you.

-Very few dogs can resist their insatiable curiosity, and most will come to see what has you so fascinated.

3. When the dog comes to see what you are doing and initiates eyecontact (to ask you what’s got you so excited), praise him and turn around and again start digging away from the dog.

-The dog will follow you and try and see what you are doing.

4. Turn around a few times, everytime praising when the dog initiates contact.

The idea of the exercise is to get the dog's attention so that reward is given when eyecontact is maintained.

Exercise 4:

One more contact exercise you can easily do while on leash walks. It is very easy and has only one step

1. Call your dog only by name and reward it every time it initiates eye-contact.

-Say the name just once (the same basic principle as with the "come" command), so call out "Newfie" and not "Newfie-hey-Newfie-Newfie".

-In the beginning only call when the dog is already paying attention to you.

-The dog will learn very quickly the equation: dog’s name=immediate reward from handler.

-When the dog knows his/her name, you will be able to call him in a crowded, noisy room and he will immediately focus all of his attention on you. You will almost be able to hear the neck snap when they twist to look at you so quickly.

-By training the name, you can reinforce your contact with your dog, and in situations where there are numerous dogs, your dog will know which command is directed to it (e.g. when in waterwork you are directing multiple dogs in an exercise - ”Capri find boat, Vera forward, Ruuti come”).

Exercise 5:

Additional eyecontact exercises for the advanced.


1.Instruct the dog to sit next to you and give the “stay” command.

2.Place a treat a bit in front of the dog. Make sure the dog stays put and does not get the treat.

-Often dogs get up when you bend down to place the treat on the ground if the “stay” command is not yet bomb-proof.

- If your dog gets up, pick up the treat and make sure the dog cannot get a reward for getting up without the release command. You must not reward any unwanted behaviour. Do not acknowledge the dog as even a verbal reprimand is sometimes enough of a reward for the dog (any attention = reward) and return calmly to where you started and command the dog to sit next to you again. Give the “stay” command and try again.

-If you suspect that your dog may not stay put, you can place the treat in a jar with a lid so that even if the dog gets to the treat, he cannot eat it.

-If your dog really really really likes toys, you can always replace the treat with a toy.

3.After placing the treat on the ground, return to stand next to your dog

4.When the dog does not look at the treat in front but gives you eyecontact, give the release command (e.g. “Go on”) to let the dog know it's alright to go for the treat.

Start with a second of eyecontact, and increase the time a second at a time. This is also good exercise to do with each meal.

You can change and vary where you place the treat. You can even place it between you and your dog. As long as the dog gives you eyecontact and does not stare at the treat, you can give the release command and allow the dog to get the reward. Remember that even though the treat acts as a reward, verbal praise is always necessary as well. 


Exercise 6:

If the advanced eyecontact execise is a bit too hard for the dog, you can easily make it easier. Often when the handler comes back to stand next to the puppy, he does not have the patience to look at the handler again before getting the food. Often the pups start to get antsy and their concentration breaks, so it's a good idea to do exercise 5 in a facilitated form. There is no point in trying something too hard, so know your dog and his limits.

1.Tell the dog to sit next to the handler and tell him to "wait”.

2. Place the food bowl about a meter away from the dog and stand next to the food bowl.

-You can keep your hand up in the "stop" position so the dog remembers that he is not supposed to move yet.

3. When the dog looks at the owner and not the food bowl, praise him, wait a second and then reward the dog by saying the release command e.g. "go on".

- The exercise is good practice for the "sit", "wait" and "go on" commands.

Essentially you are rewarding the dog for choosing you instead of the food.


(c) Salmelin