Reactivity: Eyes!

As with most reactive dogs, we have a lot of trouble getting his attention when we’re too close to a trigger. Out of sheer desperation, before having even read about reactivity, we worked on a focus technique using “look at me” as a cue so we could run away as fast as we could. Of course, I now know that this is a crucial foundational behaviour to teach for any reactive dog and frankly, we could be doing better. Case in point, we originally would use “look at me” “look at my eyes” “look Knox!” – we really lacked consistency when we first started training despite all the classes. We’ve slowly progressed to just using “EYES!” whenever we need his attention. Outlined in basically every R+ trainer’s list of tools to help you cope with life, I found the instructions and tips by Patricia B. McConnell in Feisty Fido: Help for the Leash-Reactive Dog easiest to understand and adopt into my own set of tools. All the quotes below are pulled (sometimes edited for brevity) from this amazing book that I highly recommend:

Some dogs have a hard time turning towards you once they are distracted and even the best treat in the world is barely enough. These dogs dog best if the reinforcement for turning their head towards yours is a quick run in the other direction.

Pay attention to your dog and let him tell YOU what he is willing to work for!

This is actually something we’re bad at recognizing. Realizing that Knox is 99% food motivated, the difficulty in having a dog that’s leash-frustrated is that the trigger is also the best motivator.

The valuable part of Watch, and the hardest part for reactive dogs, is to take their attention off the dog across the street and turn it back to you. …reinforce the head turn itself and worry less about the duration. Keep it short in early stages of training or when you asked for Watch under difficult circumstances.

We had this notion that Knox should keep his eyes on us until release. Of course, we forgot we didn’t teach him a release so it was constantly frustrating for everyone. Whoops.

Be cautious about using a lure or prompt. If every time you say “Watch” you follow it with a smooch, your dog will learn that the cue to turn his head is the smooch, not the word watch.

Guilty. Been there, done that. Learning to stop, I swear! Having spent the better part of the last two months in management mode, rather than training mode – something that brings me incredible anxiety, unfortunately – we forgot about the most important part: translating EYES into real life. Just avoiding dogs and jumping behind cars is not the answer. Frankly, I’m pretty sure I made it worse. Knox has a pretty solid EYES in medium distraction settings. We’re still working on it while he’s sniffing new environments but we’re at a 70% success rate. That said..

As soon as Watch is going well at moderate levels of distraction, start asking for it when your dog sees another dog. Structure this exercise carefully to guarantee that the dog is far away and won’t get too much closer. Only ask for a Watch if another dog is far enough away that your dog will see him but not go ballistic.

After reading this, I’m reminded of how sheltering Knox (thus sheltering me from anxiety) isn’t going to help anyone. Today, we saw a corgi on our walk by the arena, quite a ways away. As I started our u-turn I realized that we were in the perfect environment to practice EYES. There was enough space between us at the other dog that Knox wouldn’t start lunging but close enough that he’d look and be interested. I got his attention during the u-turn, and walked towards the oncoming corgi. Leash loose and eyes determined. Knox looks at the corgi. I can see his eyes furrow in excitement. KNOX EYES! Head turn, CLICK, cheese stick. Look back at the corgi, KNOX EYES, head turn, CLICK, cheese stick. We rapid-fired EYES at least 15 times with 100% success. Confidence level: recovery.

It helps to brainstorm about situations in which you can predict that you and your dog can see other dogs, but in which you have complete control over the distance between them. Try to anticipate the moment your dog is about to turn her head towards the other dog, and say “Watch” the microsecond she’s actually looking towards the dog. Your goal at this stage of training is to set up situations where your dog sees another dog at a distance far enough away that she can still concentrate, to say “Watch” immediately each time she looks at the other dog, and to make her oh-so-glad that she did. This exercise of asking your dog to Watch every time she looks towards another dog is the key to changing your dog’s behaviour… You’re working towards a dog who automatically looks at you as soon as she spots another dog.

Knox has an “autowatch” (or in our case, auto-eyes) on our walk for the most part. It’s part of his loose-leash walking practice. Now, we’ll incorporate jackpotting his autowatch after seeing triggers. We now know what his general comfortable but curious distance is, and there’s so much more work to do! I cannot stress enough how important this single chapter has been for our journey towards reactivity success. Because of Knox’s #sadbutt saga, we had to miss a few important reactivity group classes and have reverted to private lessons for now. That said, we’ve made some incredible strides recently where Knox went from “HMM should I got craycray at that reactive dog?!” to us doing a u-turn to regain focus, and faced the trigger head on (with proper distance, of course). One EYES at a time, Knox dog.



  1. Cicy · February 17, 2015

    Yayy!! So proud of you and Knox.


  2. Pingback: #KnoxDaily: Back To The Seawall | #knoxdog

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