Many owners are taught how to get attention from their dogs through eye contact. And as puppies, we learn to have eyes on them so they don’t get into trouble! But, have you noticed that often your dog will behave WHILE you’re watching them, but turn your back or avert your gaze and that's when the bad behaviours come out? Your dog grabs food from the counter, chews a shoe or maybe even pees on the floor? This is why it is important to master what I call the Art of Indirect Attention. We (and dogs!) have 2 types of vision – direct and indirect. Direct vision occurs when you are looking directly at something. With direct vision you see things clearly, in focus (unless you were glasses like me!). Indirect vision is also called peripheral vision. That occurs when we see things out of the side of our eyes. It may not be in focus, but we also can catch movement out of our peripheral vision. It is our peripheral vision that we will use for Indirect Attention.
Compare this to dogs. They also have both types of vision, however their direct vision is not as sharp as ours, they have a smaller range of colours (many say they are colour blind), but their peripheral vision is much more important to dogs. First of all, their eyes are set further back, so they have a wider range of peripheral vision. And if you ever wonder why all of a sudden your dog will just take off chasing something – it’s because he caught the movement out of his peripheral vision! Like people, dogs are very aware if we are giving them direct eye contact or not. Many of us stare at our dogs all day long – and to the dog this is attention! And often people command their dogs attention while training so the dog must focus on the human in order to get rewarded. If we only teach the dog while focus on him or her, then they learn to behave WHILE we are watching.
Try an experiment. Have your dog sit and wait for something – ex. Treat on the ground, their food, etc. Now, turn your head to the left or right of your dog, enough so that you are not looking directly but you can still see them in your peripheral range. Does your dog break the stay when your eye contact is broken? When you are working on stay with your dog, also work on stay while you are using peripheral vision rather than direct vision. The dog will learn that you don’t have to be watching to know what’s going on! When leash walking your dog, I teach clients to watch the environment not the dog. If you are constantly watching the dog, how do you know where you are going, what is in the environment, and your dog KNOWS you are watching and not paying attention to what is around. Therefore, your dog must pay attention and alert when something is there (many people have trained their dogs to bark and lunge as they are watching the dog rather than taking a leadership role and watching what is around!). In my advanced classes, we also work on out-of-sight stays and walk-away stays. These teach your dog impulse control even when you are not present right beside your dog! Before you attempt these advanced stays, make sure you have a solid stay with all types of distractions, as our movement is one of the biggest distractions for the dog. Creating an expectation and practicing impulse control while the dog thinks we are not looking is a great way to prevent behaviour that only happens when we are not looking. Training is about identifying possible problems and teaching the dog what is expected in that situation.