One Trick to Effectively Communicate with Your Dog

Look at Me When I’m Talking to You.

There are many important lessons we teach our children before they even start pre-school. One is to look at people when being addressed. In simple terms, when we hear our name, we should look at the person who said it. This opens up a better line of communication between the two parties and helps ensure the message is clearly being sent and received.

We like to teach our dogs the same thing, to look at us when we say their name. As with human interpersonal communication, it opens up a clearer line of communication between our dogs and us. Here’s my favorite way to teach it.

Preparation: Before a meal, I count out 10 -20 pieces my dog’s kibble and place them in my hand or a nearby dish. I may also mix in little pieces of cheese or small pieces of meat to make the reinforcement even better. I like to do this before a meal when my dog is hungry, making the food hold an even higher value. I also like to use her food for training and hand feeding as these are both relationship building activities. If I have other pets, I start this in another room to cut down on distractions.

Step 1
Teach the behavior: I wait for my dog to look at my face (or even better, my eyes), then I say my dog’s name in a happy tone of voice and give her a piece of her kibble or other treat. By doing this, I am pairing my dog’s name with looking at me. I know it seems backwards, but dogs are smart and usually get the association that hearing their name goes with looking at my face. And when she looks at my face, she gets reinforced with something she likes. I repeat this procedure many times, at least 10-20 times. I don’t say or do anything, I just wait for my dog to look at my face. If my dog is completely distracted, I might make a kissing sound with my mouth to get the first instance or two of looking at my face, but I try to fade this noise quickly.

Step 2
Check to see if my dog has made the association: When my dog isn’t looking at me, I say her name and watch to see if she looks back at me. If she does, I give her a treat. If she doesn’t, I try 1 more time. If she doesn’t get it on the second try, I go back to step 1.

Step 3
Generalize the behavior (dogs don’t always understand that a behavior taught in one place or situation means the same thing in another place or situation): I practice this behavior in different places and situations until my dog can do it correctly about 8-9 times out of 10. Below is a sample checklist.

  • Facing the TV

  • Back yard

  • Looking away from the TV

  • Front yard

  • Looking toward the sink

  • Front porch

  • Looking away from the sink

  • Driveway

  • Looking toward the oven

  • In the car

  • Looking away from the oven

  • At the vet’s office

  • Looking toward the door

  • In a parking lot

  • Looking away from the door

  • On walks

  • Living Room

  • Dog is sitting

  • Kitchen

  • Dog is laying down

  • Bedroom

  • Dog is standing

  • Hallway

  • Dog is on the sofa

  • Bathroom

  • Dog is on the ottoman

  • Entry way

  • Dog is on the bed

  • Basement

  • Dog is on the chair

  • Garage

  • Dog is on the pillow

Tip 1
Try hard not to repeat the cue: Since we are using our dog’s name as a cue to look at us, we don’t want to repeat her name or she may start to think the signal to do the behavior has more syllables than it really has (i.e., “Spot”, which has 1 syllable versus “Spot, Spot, Spot”, which has 3 syllables). If you reliably repeat your dog’s name 3 times, she will wait for the third repetition before doing the behavior. This can cause miscommunication and frustration for both parties.

Tip 2
Be patient: It’s okay if your dog needs 30-45 seconds to try to remember what the word means and what she should do when she hears the word. Dogs don’t speak English and may need time to think (i.e., translate the English word to the canine equivalent). As your dog becomes more fluent, she will do the behavior more quickly. If your dog has not done the behavior after about 45 seconds or becomes completely distracted by something else. Say her name again. If she is unsuccessful a second time, go back to Step 1 to remind her what the word means.

Tip 3
End on a good note: Keep training sessions short. 1 – 5 minutes is plenty. End on a good repetition. It will make you both feel good. If the session isn’t going well, go back to Step 1 and end on a good repetition. Begin again another time.

Tip 4
Have fun! The time you and your dog are engaged in activities together should be enjoyable for both of you.

In pretty short order you’ll have a dog who knows what you’d like her to do when you say her name, which is look to your face. Once she is doing this at a high rate of reliability, or about 8-9 times out of 10 in a given place or situation, you can begin to use other forms of reinforcement to maintain the behavior. Be sure it’s something your dog really likes. You might use eye contact, smiling, praise, touching her in a way she likes to be touched (i.e., tummy rubs, butt scratches, etc.), playing a game she likes to play with you (i.e., chase, fetch, tug, etc.), open the back door to let her out, or ask her to do another behavior she really likes to do. It’s not that you’ll never give her food again for the behavior, you just won’t always have food with you. For those times, you’ll need to reinforce her with something else.

We all want to be understood. Teaching this one simple behavior can greatly increase our ability to communicate with our dogs, making life a lot more enjoyable for everyone, dogs and people alike!