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The Importance of Eye Contact

How to develop this essential component between you and your flushing dog.

The Importance of Eye Contact

With consistency and association, your flusher will learn eye contact is the key to get his next command. (Chris Ingram photo)

The difference in jobs between flushers and pointers is fairly obvious, and it doesn’t take a genius to understand that the jobs require different skill sets. By virtue of a pointing dog’s ability to find and “hold” birds, the pointing breeds can be encouraged to run big in open country, and when properly trained, to lock onto scent and stand frozen, waiting for guns to approach. In many ways, it is important that pointing dogs learn some degree of independence. They must of course pay attention to the handler, but because so much of their work is done at a distance, they must be confident and competent enough to lose periodic “contact” with the handler but still know how to hunt and in what direction.

Flushers are a bit different. Because they need to flush birds within range of the guns, they are both bred and trained to be “stickier,” working in closer contact with the handler. It could be fairly said that flushers key more frequently off the handler’s commands or body language than do pointers, and in that way the interactive relationship between dog and handler is a bit more complex. For this reason, early training must absolutely establish desired working behaviors, but not without building clear methods of communication and mutual understanding. The best way to ensure that a dog is attentive to you, the handler, is to establish a habit of eye contact. In this installment, we will discuss eye contact, why it is important, and how to ensure that your dog becomes habituated to establishing eye contact throughout the training and the hunting session.

Building Bonds

Dogs use nuanced patterns of eye contact to communicate dynamics like dominance and submission. They also rely on periods of eye contact to create a bond, and to communicate their attentiveness. As flushing dog trainers, we use eye contact in part to establish our command in the relationship (i.e. asking for a behavior and expecting compliance). Once attained, eye contact allows the trainer to build a bond with a dog while also being clear that the dog’s attention is on the trainer, and what cue or command he or she might give. Dogs learn best when they are focused and attentive, and good eye contact establishes their readiness to receive a lesson.

Eye contact with dogs does not need to be held for minutes on end. It can be expected in short periods during direct handling or training. Moreover, the establishment of eye contact will become a habit connected to other behaviors. For example, a sit/hup command should, down the line, also include a look from the dog and a moment of eye contact before release. With eye contact, the dog communicates their reliance on you, the trainer, to make the rules, to give direction, and to remain in charge. This relationship dynamic is, of course, critical.

Bird hunters in a field with a flushing dog
When you have your flushing dog's attention through eye contact, it puts you in a position to issue them their next command with ease. (Photo By: Chris Ingram)

Establishing eye contact starts with treats. When I am training a pup, I use treats in conjunction with the place board to create a clear line of communication between me and the dog. It’s a fairly simple process: I put the dog on a short, small-diameter English slip lead, and guide the pup onto the place board. Once the dog is completely on the board or in the established “place,” I raise the lead to raise the dog’s head, and with the other hand I hold a treat high near my face. The combined cue on the lead in the position of the treat will get the dog to drop into a sitting position with focus on my face, which is precisely the posture I want. I hold the attention on my face for a few seconds then give the dog the treat if compliance is achieved. Later, as the desired behavior of “place” is cemented, I name the behavior. Eye contact remains a built-in but unspoken part of that behavior, at least when the “place” is established. I want the dog to be attentive to me as he sits down on the place board.

If the dog does not want to establish or hold real eye contact, he is basically communicating that you, the trainer, are not in charge. In this case, use the same place drill and expect the same behavior, cuing with the slip lead. For a few days or sessions, however, don’t use a treat. The absence of a treat for a few days will usually increase the dog’s desire for it when it re-appears. This will re-establish the dog’s interest and connection.

Flushing dog holding an upland game bird
Establishing eye contact in training will be essential to control high-excitement hunting situations later down the road. (Gun Dog photo)

Expectation of Communication

After I establish eye contact on the place board, I begin to demand it in other lessons, too. The most obvious place to implement eye contact is in the early heeling sessions. In teaching heel, I like to use that same English slip lead, and treats once again. I bring the dog to the heel position and make him sit by cueing up on the lead and holding the treat at eye level. Once he is sitting and looking at my eyes, I reward him with a treat. Then I take one small step forward. Almost immediately, I can tell if the dog will start moving ahead of me, and if I feel the dog moving without paying attention to my pace, I immediately stop and cue the dog to sit again. I don’t use any commands at this point, but I do keep that treat at eye level, cue the dog’s head up, and treat. Once the dog is settled, I step ahead again.


This process continues with me stopping and sitting the dog, and establishing eye contact, every time he gets a step ahead of me. The dog learns quickly that I am the one who needs to be paid attention to. Soon enough, I can take multiple steps, slow or quicken my pace, go up and down steps, with the dog matching me. When he gets ahead, I continue to sit and treat with eye contact. The goal here is to clarify to the dog that when I stop and he sits, that is a command/cue I am delivering, and his eye contact re-connects us in this communication.

Three bird hunters in a field with a flushing dog
Eye contact, built in conjunction with fundamentals like the “place” command and heeling, is a critical way to set expectations of communication and attention for your young flusher. (Chris Ingram photo)

In my experience, it takes about two weeks for the pup to understand what is expected of him in matching my pace, stopping, and maintaining eye contact when stopped while heeling. All the while, he is building a relationship with me that keeps his attention on me. Once I have a feeling that the dog understands the drill, I name the desired behavior “heel.” I say this command before I begin moving, while the dog’s eyes are on me, and he is sitting at my side. All these skills grow in conjunction with the development of eye contact and establishing a connection that tells me the dog is paying attention, and expecting leadership.

As other skills like remote hupping and blind retrieves come into play, the dog will already understand that you, the trainer, require attention and focus. Establish these habits early and often and they will serve you, and your flushing dog, for a lifetime.


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