Eye contact is a scary thing for fearful and human reactive dogs yet it’s the first thing most people do! You can get your dog more comfortable with it by working on it at home first. Start with yourself then ask a friend to help as your dog feels more comfortable.
Reinforcing eye contact is a useful skill to teach your fearful and/or reactive dog. By establishing eye contact, you can build trust. The best place to start is in your home, where it is calm and quiet. Find a distraction-free environment where you can work with your dog comfortably. Situate yourself at eye level with your dog, and use treats or a toy to hold their attention. Place the treat or toy near your face to encourage them to make eye contact with you. When they make eye contact, mark with a YES! and reward them immediately. This positive reinforcement will help to reinforce the behavior and encourage them to do it again. Practice this exercise daily in short sessions to build up their skill over time.
NOTE: The instructions below apply to both fearful and reactive dogs but later, once this skill is solid you can have a friend also work with your dog to help boost their confidence even more.
Once your dog is consistently making eye contact in your home, it's time to move on to practicing in your backyard. The backyard provides a slightly more challenging and distracting environment, as there may be outdoor sounds, smells, or visual stimuli. Start by conducting short training sessions in the backyard, using the same techniques as in your home. Gradually increase the difficulty by introducing mild distractions, such as tossing a ball nearby or having a family member walk past. Remember to reward your dog for maintaining eye contact, even when distractions are present. With consistent practice, your dog will become more accustomed to the backyard environment and be better prepared to handle outdoor distractions. Add the cue "watch me" when your dog is offering eye contact easily.
When your dog is confidently making eye contact in the backyard and familiar with the “watch me” cue, you can begin working on their eye contact skills in a park or other public setting. Start with a park that has minimal distractions, such as a quiet time of day when there are fewer people and dogs around. Find a secluded area where you can work with your dog without too many distractions. Gradually increase the level of distractions over time by choosing busier times of day or moving closer to areas where there may be more dogs. Remember to always prioritize your dog's safety and comfort, and only progress to more challenging environments when they are ready. With consistent practice and reinforcement, your dog will become more confident and reliable in offering eye contact even in the presence of other dogs and humans. This is a great way to keep them relaxed.