Like any skill, we can teach Cocoa to pay attention. We do this by reinforcing that attention generously and with great timing. The easiest way to begin is to drop a series of treats on the floor. We drop five or six treats, one at a time—then stop.
When Cocoa looks up to see why the stream of treats has stopped, that is the moment to mark.
We use a clear marker sound to let the dog know how much we appreciate the eye contact they gave us. Even a simple word like YES will do the job.
This part is critical: we always, but ALWAYS follow the marker with a piece of food. This is what gives the marker its power.
We mark and reward Cocoa for making eye contact. We keep it short and sweet to start with. Not only that, but we mark even a brief glance into our eyes with YES and drop a piece of food on the floor.
We have dog kibble on hand always, so we can grab the opportunity whenever it happens.
We started in a quiet room alone with Cocoa. No distractions allowed. Then we established the desired behaviour by practising often in that room. In this case, we were looking for eye contact.
Then we started again in another room, then another. This is proofing at a very basic level. Each time we start from the beginning, but each time the dog catches on a little quicker.
Next we added a little duration. We waited for two seconds of eye contact before marking YES and releasing a piece of food for Cocoa.
We added duration and distractions in simple increments.
Of course, training in small increments took time. Or at least it appears to take time. In fact, because it is more likely to be effective, eventually this kind of structured training saves time. We won’t need to keep going back to correct all the mistakes we didn’t make!
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