Eleven years ago, Mr. Leash and I visited a litter of 6-week-old puppies in Dumont, NJ. We were given the luxury of choosing the "pick of the litter" and I was drawn to a little female named "Sparkle." She wasn't the cutest of the eight puppies, and unlike the rest of the crew she couldn't find her way out of the ex-pen so I thought that maybe she was just a teeny bit...let's say, not as smart as the others. (Boy, was I really, REALLY wrong about that! She grew up to be super smart as well as beautiful.) But like all the other puppies, she frolicked around and hopped in my lap. What made her different from the others is that once she was in my lap, she raised her head up and looked in my eyes for much longer than I would have expected. That connection really struck me.
Of course, Sparkle was the puppy we renamed Kiva; we took her home two weeks after that first meeting, and it's not an exaggeration to say that nearly every moment since, if I am within her view, her eyes are locked on mine, no matter what I am doing. Whether I'm busy or perfectly still, if I glance away then look back, she's completely attuned, always gazing at me.
Having a dog whose eyes are so focused on mine has been a joy. We are two halves of a whole, reading each other silently. She knows what I want, what I'm thinking, and I know the same about her. She's developed an auto-immune condition over the past two years which has almost completely clouded her eyes, but her clarity and perception haven't changed one bit.
When I am out with Ruby, people constantly remark at how focused she is on me. And this is true, she has quite good focus for a young puppy. But while Kiva's acute concentration just came naturally, Ruby's eye contact is something we practice and work at, as the foundation of all of our training. The exercise is fun and something she really enjoys.
It's fun for Puppy Raisers too! Here are some members of our puppy training class working on the focus exercise. We take a treat in each hand, show the pup that we have the treats, then extend our arms outward. The pup will initially look at the treats.
We hold the position until the pup finally pulls his/her gaze away from the treat and makes eye contact with the trainer. At that point, we mark the behavior and say "Yessss!" (a substitute sound for the clicker) and reward the puppy with the treat.
The puppy learns to focus on the person rather than the treat, in order to get the treat. Eventually, most pups won't look at the treat at all (or just give it a quick glance) and stay focused on the trainer's eyes.
That is great focus!
Ruby is now 5 months old and I find this is also a good activity to use if she starts to become distracted while we're out in public, or in new situations, to reinforce her concentration.