Teaching your dog how to get into the “basic position” is not an easy task. Watch the video instruction and follow my step-by-step instructions to learn how it can be done with ease!
[Links to Part 1 – 2 – 3 – 4]

Verbal cue in English:
“Look”, “Watch me”

Verbal cue in German:
“Schau” [:chow]


Part 1 of 4: Getting our dog to pay attention to us.

If you have ever watched a dog obedience show on TV, you may have noticed that all exercises start and end in one position: The dog sits in a straight position on the left side of the handler while the dog’s right shoulder blade is level with the handler’s knee. This is called the “basic position”. Have you noticed that most (well trained) dogs sitting in this basic position actually look up to their handler? No, this is not because these dogs love their handler so much, they do it because they have been trained to do it. Why is that a good thing? It is good because when your dog is calmly looking at you, he is actually paying attention!

Even if you are not interested in competitive obedience, teaching your dog to get into the basic position on command has a lot of benefits. For example: After you got the leash to take your dog out for a walk, would you rather have him bounce around like crazy or wait calmly next to you before you open the door?… I can already think of half a dozen more examples and I am not even finished with this sentence.

Don’t be mistaken, asking our dog to look up at us is more than just a neat trick. Non-verbal communication plays a much more important role for dogs than it does for humans. As a matter of fact, young dogs will seek our eye contact in many situations but most of us rarely pick this up. We mind our own business or simply don’t expect them to communicate this way. Eventually, these dogs will cede to communicate with us visually and a great opportunity to better understand each other is lost. Teaching our dog to look at us AND renewed attention to our dog whenever he makes eye contact helps to reestablish this level of communication.

Let’s get started with the practical part: If you have read through my fundamentals section, you are familiar with the concept of “chaining and back chaining” (Section 12). That is what we need to do with the “getting into basic position and looking up” exercise. You will achieve the best results if you begin your training with the last element of the exercise and then work your way towards the first. This means that for now, we don’t need to worry about how to get our dog onto our left side – all we want for now is to teach our dog to look at us in anticipation.

Elements of the “basic position” exercise are:

(a) Our dog needs to get into a straight position on our left side
(b) Our dog needs to sit down this position
(c) Our dog needs to look at us and pay attention

Like I said, we will practice each element individually, starting with the last one.

Getting our dog to look at us step by step:

Step 1

Get your treats, your clicker and a toy. Put the treats into your right pocket (I suggest you wear a training jacket or a belt pouch to keep your treats handy.) Initially, you want to keep them out of your dog’s reach so he does not get distracted

Step 2

Make sure your dog can focus exclusively on you, avoid any disturbance. Training indoors or in your backyard is a good idea.

Step 3

Give your dog the Sit command and praise him calmly once he sits down correctly.

Step 4

Calmly step next to your dog’s right shoulder so he sits to your left. Your dog’s right shoulder blade should be level with your knee (this is the correct basic position).

Step 5

With your right hand, take a treat out of your pocket and hold it in front of your mouth (pretend you are taking it out of your mouth).

Step 6

Now get your dog’s attention by making a sound (pssst) or by calling his name. When he looks up, show him the treat and immediately move your right arm down to your dog so he can easily get the treat without moving out of position. Bend down if necessary. Make sure your dog does not get out of position before he gets his treat – if he does, put the treat away and start over at step 3. If your dog gets too excited about the treat, discontinue this exercise and wait until he has calmed down (take him for a walk or play him so he looses some of that excess energy).

Step 7

Repeat this exercise starting at step 5 a few more times. For now, avoid waiting periods. Your dog needs to think that there is a constant stream of food coming from your mouth so that’s what he is going to be focused on.

Step 8

After a few minutes of successful training, release your dog from the sit position and play with him (ball or tug, whatever your dog likes).

Step 9

Once your dog has learned to sit calmly next to you, eagerly awaiting his treats, you can start to increase the waiting period between his treats so he needs to stay focused on you longer. This is also the right time to introduce the “Look” cue. Instead of getting your dog’s attention by calling his name or making a sound, ask him to “Look” at you and then praise him when he does it. If he looks away again, repeat the “Look” cue. Some people train the Look cue separately. That’s okay, but in my opinion not necessary.

This is also a good time to streamline our “treat dispensing” method. Up to this point, your dog has learned that treats are always coming from your hands. Smart! Why look up to the master when the yummy thing is coming from the hand? The remedy is simple: put the treats in your mouth and spit them so your dog needs catch them. And no, I am not kidding!

I understand that this might be a bit uncomfortable for a lot of people, but there are good ways to deal with the yuck-factor. A lot of dogs like fruit. You can cut an apple or a peach into pieces and use those as treats. You could also use small pieces of cooked beef of liver. At this stage, we want our dog to look at our face without being distracted by our hand.

Step 10

Let’s do it. Go through steps 1 to 4, but instead of holding your dog’s treats in front of your mouth as described in step 5, put them into your mouth. Stand up straight and turn your head towards your dog (try to keep your upper body straight). Once you have your dog’s attention, spit a piece of food towards him. I would not be surprised if that first piece of food bounced right of your dog’s nose or perhaps did not even land near your dog. If that happened, your dog probably got up and started sniffing around for the lost treat… Oh well. Not a single one of my dogs has ever been a naturally born food catcher either. Eventually, our dog will learn how to catch the treat in mid-air. For now, it is okay if our dog gets up to look for the dropped treat. After all, the purpose of this lesson is not food catching, it is about paying attention and looking up before the food reward comes.

After a few training sessions, your dog should have learned that there is food coming from your mouth and he will probably look up to you as soon as you start the exercise. Bravo – that is all we want from him for now. We can move on to part 2, but you should keep on practicing!

Keep in mind: Your treat has to be the most interesting stimulus for your dog during this exercise. If your dog is focused on something else, the lesson won’t work! If your dog does not care for the treat, use something yummier or wait until he his really hungry (perhaps have him skip a meal before you train). It is important to keep training sessions short so your dog does not loose interest. Try to finish your sessions on a high note and always add some playtime when you are done.

What if?

Q: Once my dog smells the treats, he does not want to sit down. Instead, he gets up and tries to take the treats from my hand or out of my pocket.

A: In my opinion, teaching our dog how to stay focused in the “basic position” is the mother of all exercises. However, you have probably noticed that this lesson is not listed as number one. Why? It is almost impossible to teach your dog to pay attention if he is all over the place. That’s why we start out with the Sit command. Your dog needs to be able to obey the Sit command even under some moderate distraction (such as food in your hand) before you can start with the basic position. If your dog is not quite at that point yet, take it easy and work a bit more on your Sit while adding some distractions.

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