When I teach clients to encourage their dogs to make eye contact, the first question is always “what word do I use?” As a human who absolutely loves to hear her own voice, I get it. But, unless your dog has been using non-existent opposable thumbs and perusing the internet for tips on how to train himself, skip the word in the beginning.
Stand in front of your dog. If your dog ducks his head or darts his eyes back and forth, you are applying what’s called “social pressure” and it is making him nervous. Try sitting in a chair or leaning back slightly to see if your dog relaxes. Say nothing, at all. When he looks at your eyes, not your hands, say “yes” and give him a treat from behind your back. Repeat two times. If he trembles or frets when you do this, stop immediately and practice easier skills like “touch” and “find”. The goal with training is to build the bond and connection so he wants to listen to you.
Once he has looked up at you a couple times, add a cue like “watch” or “look”. You choose, just use the same word all the time so it makes sense to your pup. Say “watch” and when he looks at you, “yes” and treat. Try that a few times and take a break with some “touch” or “find” work. Asking a dog to look at you for prolonged periods of time can be super intense; unless the dog is uber confident. Taking a break before he begins AVOIDING you is much better than pushing and pushing until he’s completely fried.
The next day, in the same place, start with your dog in front of you for a warm-up, ask for a “watch”. Always make sure he knows he did an awesome job by saying “yes” and rewarding him. Once he is looking softly into your eyes with his beautiful peepers, try it from the side. Looking straight up at your face is so much easier than turning his head around to watch your eyes from the side. Repeat a few times and call it a day.
Technically, to build reliability; you have to practice with one distraction, then two, then three but life does not work that way. So, while you are rocking your “watch” in the living room and your dog is learning, reward it voluntarily outside. I like to stop at each landing and the door to my building and wait for Gavin to look up at me. Sometimes it’s faster than others but he’s learning. When he does, I say “yes” and he gets what he wants; it can be a treat but I also let him race down the stairs as a reward. You gotta use what your dog loves.
It’s important in beginning stages to not shout “watch” to your dog in settings that are too distracting. Practice a couple minutes a day in the house, reward it when he offers it on walks; and soon he will be checking in with you more often. If he’s looking to you for guidance, there’s a lot of other things he’s not looking at that could get him into trouble. Cool, huh?