Your dog wants your opinion

What's up?

One of the most useful behaviors any dog owner can teach their dog is to look at them. Trainers teach this checking-in behavior differently. I’ll share my favorite.

Like any behavior, the more a dog practices it and gets rewarded for it, the better they’ll get at it. If I want my dog to pay attention to me it’s easier if I’ve rewarded them whenever they’ve paid attention to me in the past. While I don’t teach the behavior with a cue (‘hey’, ‘look at me!’) it’s simple enough to cue them to do it once they are in the habit of looking at me anyway.

To begin I start by acknowledging and rewarding my dog for looking at me, for any reason, in a place without a lot of distractions. My response is to look back at them, smile, nod, praise them (nice! thank you! yes!) and then hand them a treat. By the time a dog figures out what they need to do to relieve me of treats I swear they must think they are living with the most simple-minded human on the planet.

I’m not asking them to look at me, I am waiting to get the behavior and reward it. Then we take the behavior on the road, literally. While we’re out on walks anytime my dogs indicate that they are noticing me, looking for or at me, I smile, nod, praise and if they are close enough, hand them a treat. If we’re on our off leash walks I let them choose whether to come to me for a treat or not.

Find places with more distractions where you can work on this. It might be sitting in your car, in a training class, in a friend’s living room. Be prepared to wait for the behavior. If I start to feel that it’s taking too long I might do something that provokes the behavior, like clearing my throat or shifting my weight. If I’m in a place where it might be harder for my dog to focus on me the rewards I use are super awesome. Toys can work as rewards as well.

Do this enough and you end up with a dog with a checking-in habit. Should a situation arise which takes your dog’s attention away from you, it’s easier to ask them for their attention and get it because they are already so good at doing it. It does mean that you have to do your part and pay attention to your dog so you can catch check-ins, which for many dogs, happen far more than their owners ever notice. When our dogs do look at us, it’s not a random act, nor is it likely meaningless to them. They are attempting to gather information from us; which way are you going at the trail junction, what do you think of that noise we just heard, or about that person who is walking toward us?

Most of our dogs want to know what our opinion is in many situations. That’s often more then we can say about some of the people we spend time with.


6 comments so far

  1. According to Gus on

    I like how you refer to this as “checking-in”. We are actively working with Gus (and ourselves) and are learning so much from your blog. My fear is that when Gus “checks-in” with me, I’ll make him more anxious.

    • fearfuldogs on

      If you are afraid that your response to the dog is going to make the dog more anxious than that’s something you need to sort out. Do you have a trainer who can help you? If you reward a dog for checking in with you, they should begin to feel pretty good about it. If when they look at you your eyes go wide, you take in a gulp of air and tense up, that’s not likely to be helpful.

      When my dogs check-in with me I give them information. Sometimes it’s simply a verbal reward for performing the behavior or a release to keep moving, or instructions on what they should do next, wait, come, leave-it, whatever. These cues are of course contingent on what behaviors they know how to perform and how they feel about performing them (when dogs are trained using positive reinforcement training techniques they usually feel good about being asked to do stuff). If they can’t perform any of them I have to think why that might be. Is my dog not sitting because they are afraid and want to be able to make a run for it, or because the surface is putting them off for one reason or another, or because they’ve never been asked to sit in this situation before and have not generalized the behavior?

  2. According to Gus on

    Exactly…which is why we’re working on our behavior too. Since we know he looks to us first when he’s stressed, we want to make sure we’re not sending him the wrong signals.

    • fearfuldogs on

      Then I suspect you are going to have great success!

  3. Julia on

    Great posting! I started doing this with my dog Quinn sort of by accident. Every time he’d look at me I’d say “Good”, and now it’s just become habit. I’ve found the same wonderful result that now when we’re out and about (especially at off-leash parks) he’ll turn and look at me to “check in”. It’s a wonderful feeling when he checks in with me and also very helpful, especially in situations where he’s suddenly fearful of something/someone.

    • fearfuldogs on

      It’s a great habit to get into, and to get our dogs into. It makes me feel like part of the team when I come around a bend and see that one of the dogs has been waiting for me.

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