One of the first skills a service dog learns is to make eye contact. She needs to be watching her trainer all the time, ready for the next command. Even when there is a distraction. Even when there is food.
Last week in class, we learned a new game. I hold a piece of kibble and wait for her to look at me instead of the food. When she makes eye contact, I click and she gets the kibble. Seva did this beautifully in class.
At home, she had forgotten everything. I held out the kibble and she went for it. I moved it out of reach and she pawed at me, climbing after it. This went on for several minutes as I kept patiently waiting for her to look at me instead of the food. Then I made kissy noises and she looked at me. Ah ha! She got the food. I attracted her attention to me a few more times, and that was all it took. After that, I held out the food and she looked at me every time.
Now, understand, that kibble is pretty darn tasty and it is a real challenge for a pup to take her eyes off it. All she had to do at first was glance at me. But now, she has to look at me for several seconds before she gets the treat. It’s not a sustained gaze, more of a rapid eye movement between me and the kibble, but she is definitely watching me and she understands the expectation.
One thing puppies are not good at is generalization. This is why they need to be trained in lots of places. If you don’t ask them to sit everywhere, they think they only sit in the kitchen. So after lots and lots of good Watch With Distractions, I switched hands and held the kibble out to my right instead of my left.
Seva didn’t know what to do. She got up and went into her crate since it was near my hand. When I didn’t click, she sat. Then she came out. Walked in a circle…. Puppies will try everything they know to earn that kibble. At times like this, the trainer’s job is to wait for the desired behavior and click at the moment that captures it. Seva eventually figured it out.
If she couldn’t figure it out, I would have moved the kibble back to my left hand. I’ve had to back it up on occasion. I never stop the training with her failing. I back it up so she can succeed. We repeat the successes a lot so she always feels rewarded and not frustrated at the end of a session. As with people, frustrated puppy won’t want to work for you.
Here’s a great picture of Seva looking at me and not the kibble.