Focus Games - Check Ins


Hi everyone and welcome to the Focus Games – Check-Ins lecture. This game is one of the foundational building blocks for a variety of other behaviors. Working through this game will help with overall distraction issues with your dog in the long run. 

I want everyone to be on the same page about what a check-in is. It is the dog choosing to look at you, interact with you, or orient towards you on its own. The dog chooses to do this without any outside input from the owner. This means we aren’t forcing the dog to look at us, but we also aren’t trying to instigate other stimuli that may cause the dog to look at you including kissy noises, touching the treat pouch, snapping, patting the leg, or clearing your throat, just to name a few examples. This is also not the “watch me” or “look” cue. Think of when you tell someone, “hey, just checking in”. It is a voluntary choice on your part to see if the other person needs anything and to let them know you are around. It is the same concept for the dog with you as well. 

I mentioned that check-ins are a foundation block to many other behaviors. We will play some different check-in games with a few of these behaviors, but just to give you an idea, I want to go over some of them now. It will drastically affect your dog’s recall. A dog that checks in is less likely to run off in the first place, but that dog will usually come back on its own frequently without you having to recall the dog in the first place. It also helps to build a reinforcement history for this, which makes actually teaching a recall significantly easier. 

It will help with loose leash walking. If a dog wants to check in with you constantly, they are going to be walking with a loose leash and usually pretty close to you. They are more attuned to where you are going and tend to focus more on you than on the other worldly distractions. 

And most important, check-ins help with working through real-world distractions. If a dog cares more about you and what you are doing more than the other things in the environment, that dog will “listen” to you better and be more responsive to cues in a variety of situations. They will also be easier to train because they have a reinforcement history of trying to engage with you more. 

Again, there will be a few varieties of check-ins we will be teaching in this class, but you will want to make sure to practice each of them and do it frequently. You will notice more difference the more you choose to work on it with your dog. 

The only supplies you will need will be your clicker, a variety of treats, your treat pouch, a regular leash, and a collar and/or harness. For the treats, use the types of treats that make the most sense for your dog’s skill level as well as what is occurring in the environment. Go back to your motivation worksheet if you need ideas for what types of treats to bring. If you are going to video yourself, make sure to bring your phone with you. 

Now, we will go over the steps for how to train this. You are going to stand in a neutral and natural stance. Make sure your hands are not in your treat pouch already, in a pocket, or anywhere indicating towards your face. Make sure you are either sitting straight or standing straight. 

Next, you are going to patiently wait for your dog to choose to look towards your face on its own. You should NOT give any signals to the dog, point towards your face, or say anything. The dog needs to CHOOSE to look at you on its own. Make sure the dog looks at your face and not at your treat pouch. The moment the dog looks at you on its own, immediately click and then deliver a treat. If the dog looks at your treat pouch after you have clicked, at this stage that is fine so long as you clicked the moment your dog’s gaze met yours. 

This may take some patience on your part. Depending on the environment it could be seconds or minutes before the dog looks at you for the first time. You can’t cheat your way at dog training. If you aren’t patient and try to get your dog to look at you, it may seem effective the first few weeks, but you will notice very wobbly behaviors that never really advance and you will struggle in the face of real distractions and actually utilizing this skill in the real world. 

When choosing where to train this game, start in the least distracting place possible. This will usually be inside in your home, when it is quiet in the home. When you have mastered this game there, then it is time to transport it to other locations building up the distraction level. If you think it is taking way too long for the dog to finally check in for the first time, for me that would be 10 minutes, then the distraction and/or environment is either too difficult and/or your rewards are not valuable enough. Make sure you are videoing yourself and doing data collection so you know if it actually is taking a while or if it just feels like it. 

Make sure you are focusing just on this ONE skill. Do not ask the dog to sit, down, or stand. We are only focusing on check-ins and all the other behavior is irrelevant at this stage. If you require a sit first, for example, you are teaching the dog only to check in if you have cued a sit first and if they are motivated enough in that environment at that time. Again, this won’t lead to a solid foundation in the future. 

My dogs check in constantly at home, so this video will start the progression of me taking Zap to some of the places I took her to do Brown Bag Lunches successfully and adding a check-in component. 

Notice how I wait for Zap to look up at my face before I click and deliver a treat to her. Her other behaviors are irrelevant at this stage. My hands are at my side neutral and I am standing upright. You will see her gaze is at my treat pouch or clicker hand, but my criteria is for her to look at my face before I will click and treat. 

If a dog has been in a stationary position for a while, I will move around to get the dog up, so the dog doesn’t mistake this with a “holding position” behavior. If the dog maintains its gaze without looking away while chewing a treat, then I will click and treat once the dog has swallowed the first treat. Again, if she looks at my treat pouch after I have clicked, I am not too worried at this stage; that does indicate to me the dog has made an association with looking at me, getting clicked and where the food is coming from. 

If your dog starts getting grabby with the treats and there don’t appear to be other indicators of stressors in the environment, it is likely the session is going to long. An ideal session is 1-2 minutes, then take a break and you can try again. Still maintain how the dog is taking treats for treat manners, but still use the grabbiness as information to you. 

I take a little play break with Zap since she was getting grabby and then come back to play again a few minutes later. Notice how relaxed she is, and how quickly she is checking in after that short little break. If you watch closely, you will notice she is holding her gaze up until she hears the click now and her “check-ins” are less fleeting. 

You will notice distractions appear in the distance and she looks over to see what they are doing, then immediately and calmly back up to check in with me. Compare that to the Brown Bag Lunches where she frantically was turning her head and eating a few days ago. 

Now, we head back to the home improvement store to practice our check-ins. She did pretty well with this in Brown Bag Lunches, but now you will see much more people distractions and how check-ins helped her to handle it. For Zap, people are very exciting and you can hear in the background a child talking about a “cute puppy” and her mom is there with her in the cart roughly 8 feet away. You will notice Zap look over at them and then immediately at me. A “give” for Zap that she is really struggling with a particular distraction like a person, child (yes, I know kids are people too…sort of), squirrel or dog is she bites her lips and her cheeks puff out. If you go back and watch the video again in slo-motion, you will see it here. 

I left this first part of the video in for a couple of reasons. You will hear the mom ask if her daughter can pet the dog. I tell her “no, sorry we are training.” I come up with an excuse like ‘she will jump on you’ and thank them for at least asking. This is very important because we are here to work on your dog building value for you in new environments and checking in with you, not polite interactions with other people, which we will work on at a later time. If I was uncomfortable saying no and let them pet her and tried to just manage it in a new environment, it likely will not reinforce behaviors I want in the long run. The dog still will likely jump, nibble, vocalize or do the other greeting behaviors I wouldn’t like and it is going to undo all the work we just put into ignoring other people and focusing and interacting with me. If people ask, validate their question, thank them for asking, and politely decline. You can use an excuse if you wish. My usual go to’s are “sorry, we are training, my dog may jump on you, they are scared of kids, they are scared of men, they are scared of women, she will pee on you, she has a skin infection.” You don’t need to have an excuse, it is your dog, not an animal in a petting zoo. However, if you are uncomfortable telling people “no”, have an excuse you can add in that is natural for you to say and stick with it. And if they don’t respect your wishes or try to pet your dog anyway, just walk away. 

I also want to point out an important piece that is actually a handling error, especially in this initial teaching phase of check-ins. The human got distracted and disconnected from the dog. We get upset when we are out and the dog ignores us and focuses on other people, yet we do it all the time. Now it is unreasonable to be focused on your dog 100% of the time when you are with them, and it is the same in reverse, but if we are working on check-ins, you either need to multi-task or choose one to focus on and the thing to focus on would be check-ins. If you multi-task, keep the majority of your attention on your dog. You will notice I am still keeping my head angled towards Zap and I am watching her out of my peripherals and clicking and treating for each look at me. If you are unable to multi-task in this way, and that is fine if you say you really can’t, then in this situation, I would simply say “sorry, we are training” and walk away or no longer engage with the other person. Even though I multi-task, if you watch carefully, you will notice a mistake on my part at around 2:45 where I forget to click, reach into my pouch and don’t feed the dog right away. If Zap was struggling heavily with the child and I made that mistake, I am pulling out a lot of those reinforcement blocks I built. This is why video is important, it helps you catch little errors like this one. 

Since she did so well in the back of the store, I give her a little break and move more towards the middle of the store where there will be a few more people, but not too many that she can’t handle. You will notice right at the start that she is checking in as I move and focused immediately. She can hear other people talking and laughing just in the aisle over, yet she is calm and checks in immediately with me. 

You will notice she really wants to approach the man about 4 feet away looking at carpet, but she turns towards me, I don’t click because her gaze was at my treat pouch, not at me. When she looks at me, she gets her click and treat. When he moves, she gets up because she really wants to investigate him. I have the leash close enough to where she can’t and I hold my position. When she looks at me, she gets her click and treat and visibly calms. If she would have barked or lunged, I would have immediately taken her away. If she moved towards the person and I gave more slack on the leash or moved with her, that would have reinforced disengaging with us and interacting with other people, which is not what we want. If I knew my dog well enough and knew she likely wouldn’t check in that close, then I would move the dog away on the approach and go to a calmer environment until I think we are ready. 

I want to list out some common mistakes so you can make sure to avoid doing them. The biggest are lack of patience and adding in cues. Wait for your dog to CHOOSE to look at you. Even if you have taught a “look” or “watch” cue previously, do NOT use it. This needs to become a default behavior the dog does on its own and giving cues won’t make it a default. Also, don’t try to cheat your way through it. Sure, you may think you are making progress quickly by cheating with little body movements and twitches, but you are setting the behavior to fall apart when you really need it and when we combine it with more advanced skills. 

Another big mistake is pointing at your face. I see it all the time when owners previously learned a “watch” cue. First off, it looks silly and isn’t practical for everyday life with your dog. Secondly, it is usually taught with holding a treat up to your face. The dog is just looking at the treat you are holding, not learning to engage with you. As tempting as it is, keep those hands at your side!

The other big mistake is clicking for looking at the treat pouch. Remember, in the future classes we will start phasing out treats as well as treat pouches. We don’t want check-ins to become dependent on the treat pouch being on your body so only click and treat for looking at your face.

Again, video yourself. It will help you catch errors you may have missed.

Again, data collection is important and can help you see if you are making progress or not. There are a couple of points I would recommend looking at. If you take video, this will be easy to figure out when you watch the video back. One I would recommend looking at is how many check-ins you can click and treat in a 2-minute session. The more you practice in that environment, the more you should be able to see that number increasing as the dog learns to check in more frequently. Another area to look at is how long it takes for that initial check-in. When the dog learns that environment is one that earns reinforcement, they will start the check in game much sooner rather than looking around for a while before that initial check-in. When putting in your data, make sure to list the locations because varying the location can cause the numbers to get jumbled. But if you’ve done the same location 3 times in a row, you will notice the amount of time for the initial check-in decreasing and the amount of check-ins overall increasing. If you are not seeing that progress, then the environment is either too difficult at this stage and/or the rewards are not valuable enough for that situation. 

If you are a Level 2 or 3 student, feel free to post a short video along with questions in the Facebook group. If you are a Level 3 student, we will be working on this game in class next week. 

If you want to watch the full video of me training with Zap without me talking over it, here is the link for it: https://youtu.be/uh7kQLgRB4k