Golden Retriever Training: The “Look at Me” Skill


Many dog trainers will advise that you teach a dog its basic skills as early as possible, which is very sound advice. But, often, one crucial skill is not included in the list of basic skills. That skill is the “look at me” or “watch me” skill. 

After completing marker training, “look at me” should be the next skill you teach. The look at me skill is straightforward to teach, and it reinforces the concepts of marker training that you hopefully started with first.  

So what is the “look at me” skill, and why is it essential that I teach my Golden Retriever this skill?  

The “look at me” skill teaches your Golden Retriever to focus on you when asked and to ignore distractions in the environment. The “look at me” skill builds better communication with your dog through eye contact, and it helps teach better impulse control and listening skills.

Listening and focus are at the core of learning, whether for humans or dogs. Learning or receiving instructions becomes difficult, if not impossible if a person (or in this case, your dog) is distracted or focused on something else. It is precisely why this skill is so important to teach to your Golden Retriever.

If your Golden is not focused on you, then it is not listening to you. The “look at me” command becomes very important when you finally go out into the real world with distractions aplenty. 

The look at me skill is relatively easy to teach. Like marker training, it forms a foundation to build upon as you train more complex skills. Marker training and look at me should be introduced first. These two skills will be used consistently throughout your training, from basic to advanced skills, and will provide a solid training foundation as we move forward.  

Some trainers do not see the value of the “look at me” skill. I see no harm in teaching it and a definite benefit. I mean, we often teach our dogs tricks – like “shake a paw.” Does that have a benefit other than being entertaining?

I would say yes, it does. All training requires a dog to problem solve, learn, and it stimulates them mentally. Those are pretty beneficial effects for any dog, I would think.

The biggest advantage of teaching the “look at me” skill is that it puts the skill on cue. Meaning you can get your dog to look at you when asked and whenever the situation calls for it. In this way, you steer the ship, so to speak.

I have used the “look at me” skill in many situations when I need BAR to focus on me. For example, like sniffing something on a walk, and it’s time to get going.

Bailey Adam Ruzek (BAR) doing a perfect “look at me”.

If you need a review on marker training, which was the first skill taught in the Golden Retriever Training Series, you can find it here: 

Golden Retriever Training: Using Markers

Supplies You’ll Need For Training

Before teaching your Golden Retriever, the “look at me” or “watch me” skill, you’ll need some basic supplies. The “look at me” skill is where the real training begins, so make sure you have the right tools in place before starting.

  • Collar 
  • 6-foot leash (optional)
  • Rewards – treats
  • Treat Pouch (optional but highly recommended)
  • Clicker (optional) 
  • Marker Words (recommended)

Recommendations When Training

There are few fundamental recommendations you should follow when training your dog. These recommendations help frame each training session in a structured and organized manner. Following a structured training session helps to ensure the most efficient use of your time while setting up the best environment for training success each time.

The recommendations at a glance are:

  • Always Reward When Using a Marker
  • No Punishment or Blame – Keep It Positive and Upbeat
  • Train After Exercise or Play
  • Short, Frequent Training Sessions are Better
  • It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint 
  • Do Not Repeat Cues Multiple Times  

Always Reward When Using a Marker

As discussed in marker training, when you use your clicker or verbal cue – ALWAYS provide the reward immediately afterward.

When you begin weaning your dog off treats, you will stop using markers regularly, and at those times, there is no need to reward. However, if you use a marker, then a reward must always follow, even if you used it by mistake. 

No Punishment or Blame – Keep It Positive and Upbeat

The whole point of using rewards is to create a positive, reward-based training method. However, it is easy to become frustrated when your dog doesn’t “get it” right away. That will happen, so be mindful of it and keep it positive. 

It’s been shown through science that positive, reward-based training is the most effective method. Aversives and punishment are old-school thinking and have been shown to cause more issues than they solve. Plus, many of them are inhumane. 

Your dogs are members of the family. If you wouldn’t use a form of punishment on a two or three old child, then you shouldn’t use it on your dog. 

If you’re interested in the best training method for Golden Retrievers and why punishment or aversives is not the way to go, then check out this article:

Dog Training Methods: Which One is Best for Golden Retrievers?

Physical corrections are a form of punishment and come in two types. One is punitive, as in snapping the leash in a hard manner to correct the dog from pulling. The other is moving your dog into a position with your hands, e.g., pushing on your dog’s butt to get it to sit.

While the latter correction is not as extreme as the former, they are both forms of physical correction and are born out of reacting instead of teaching

When either correction has occurred, you are frustrated or angry, and the teaching mindset is lost.  At this point, stop. Walk away and reset. Train again later when you’ve had time to calm down. You don’t want to control your dog by physical corrections or to yell but rather by showing and teaching the behavior you want. 

Teach your Golden Retriever by showing it the behavior you want and reward that behavior. In that way, your Golden Retriever wants to learn and looks forward to training. Learning should be fun for both you and your dog. 

By keeping your training fun and upbeat, not only will your dog learn better, but your relationship will be a stronger one as well. 

Exercise Before Training

I suggest doing the training after the puppy or dog has had some exercise. It helps burn some of the excess mental and physical energy, and they are typically more focused afterward. You don’t want to exercise your dog so much, however, that it’s exhausted and wants to sleep. 

The goal is to burn off excess mental and physical energy before training to put your Golden Retriever in a calmer state that is more conducive to better focus and learning. A relaxed dog is a better focused dog and less intent on playing and distractions.

A game of fetch always primes BAR for some good training afterwards.

Smaller, Frequent Training Session

You and your dog should do multiple short training sessions throughout the day instead of doing one or two long ones. Dogs, especially puppies, may have a limited attention span. Smaller, more frequent training sessions ensure the dog remains focused and both of you have fun. 

A handful of five to ten-minute sessions throughout the day is acceptable, maybe even less when starting with a puppy. 

Almost all skills you learn are through repetition. Whether it is driving, golfing, skating, or playing guitar, repetition is at the core of learning. Your Golden is the same. It will require that the behavior be repeated over and over and over until it becomes ingrained. Repetition is the mother of all skills

If you find your dog is beginning to struggle or you are getting frustrated, then stop. Start another training session later when both of you have had a moment to reset and are in a better frame of mind. 

It’s a Marathon, Not a Sprint 

The more complex the skill you’re teaching, the longer it will take and the more steps it might require. Expect that training will take time, and there will be challenges along the way. Your dog might take longer on some commands than others or regress at times and seemingly forget a skill it knew last week. This is all normal and part of the process. 

Training Tip: If your dog struggles with learning something, it typically means it’s too complicated and it does not understand what you want. When this happens, break your training down into smaller steps.

So, for example, if you were teaching a cue in five steps, you may now need to break it further down into ten steps or even 15. Smaller, simpler steps are more straightforward for your dog to grasp than a few larger but more complicated ones. 

It also takes time for dogs to generalize skills to other situations. That’s why it’s essential to teach the skills in as many environments as possible.

For example, when your Golden Retriever has sufficiently learned the “look at me” skill in the house, then start practicing it in the backyard, then on walks, the park, and so forth. By doing so, your dog begins to learn to generalize the command to all situations with different distractions in play.  

Also, keep in mind that generalizing to other situations can take upwards of 6 months or longer, so be patient and keep training. 

Training tip: The progression of teaching should follow the three “D’s”: duration, distance, and distractions. Once the basic behavior is established, then start training the skill with longer durations and distances, and then move to progressively more distracting environments.

The three D’s will be explained in depth when we learn the “leave it” skill in the next article.

Do Not Use a Command Multiple Times

A common mistake beginners make is repeating a command or cue multiple times. For example, when asking a dog to “sit,” it should be said once only and not multiple times. Then, if the dog doesn’t do the desired behavior, say “no,” do not reward, and try again with the “sit” command. 

The words “no” and “good” are also marker words. I go over marker training in an article I wrote on that very subject. If you need a review on markers or an introduction to those concepts, they are explained here: Golden Retriever Training: Using Markers.

Lure and Capture Training

Two frequently used methods in dog training are luring and capture training.

Capturing is when you wait for your dog to perform the behavior without guidance and then mark and reward the behavior immediately upon occurrence. Capturing can be used if a dog is having a hard time learning behaviors on cue or the behavior is difficult to recreate, such as jumping up on countertops.

However, capturing is not the most effective method for intelligent dogs like the Golden Retriever.  

Timing is critical in teaching dogs, and it’s a downfall of capture training. Capturing relies on being close enough to see and reward the behavior. If you don’t get to the behavior in time or don’t have a treat available, it’s a missed opportunity. 

In our training sessions, we’ll be using something called lure training. Using a food lure or “luring” is how most trainers teach, and it has the advantage that you can initiate the behavior rather than wait for your dog to do it.

With lure training, you guide your dog by luring it with a treat into the desired behavior (for example, a sit), then reward for success. Because you create the behavior instead of waiting for it, timing the reward is easier than capturing.

And that’s the significant advantage of lure training. You can create the behavior during structured training sessions and in different environments whenever you want. In capturing, you have to follow your dog around and wait for the behavior to occur independently. 

Ideally, it’s best to use both methods. Capturing is great for rewarding spontaneous good behaviors when they occur. That’s why it’s always good to have treats available in spots throughout the house. Lure training, however, should be the foundation of your structured training sessions.

The Training Session: The Look at Me Skill

So, let’s get started. The steps below are easy to learn, and your Golden should catch on within a few repetitions.

  1. Sit, squat, or kneel in front of your Golden Retriever (the closer you are to the dog’s eye level, the better). 
  2. Hold the treat between your thumb and index finger so that your pointer finger is sticking out and pointing.
  3. Hold the treat in front of your Golden Retriever’s nose and move it towards your eyes (your pointer finger should be pointing at your eyes).
  4. Your Golden Retriever will follow the treat and when it makes eye contact (even if it is just briefly), then immediately say “YES” and reward the dog with the treat.

Training tip: get the behavior to look the way you want it first before adding the command. In this way, the dog first learns what is expected. Then we can begin associating a label or cue to the behavior once it looks the way we want it.

Simple right? That’s all to it. 

Once the behavior looks the way we want it to, then we add in the verbal command or cue.

  1. Sit, squat, or kneel in front of your Golden Retriever (kneel on a pad or old blanket for comfort). 
  2. Hold the treat between your thumb and index finger so that your pointer finger is sticking out and pointing.
  3. Hold the treat in front of your Golden Retriever’s nose and move it towards your eye while saying, “look at me.”
  4. Your Golden Retriever will follow the treat and when it makes eye contact (even if it is just briefly), then immediately say “YES” and reward the dog with the treat.

The only thing we changed in that progression was in step three where we now add in the cue of “look at me” while we’re initiating the movement.

What Are Hand Signals and Why Are We Teaching Them? 

Hand signals are a form of communication to help your Golden Retriever understand what you want. Some dogs are more responsive to hand signals or body gestures.

Communication comes in many forms beyond the spoken word, including body postures, eye contact, and hand signals. In fact, the spoken word is only a tiny part of how we communicate as human beings. 

So, we want to use these same tools with our dogs, maybe even more so. Dogs don’t understand or comprehend the English language like we do and never well. Incorporating as many modes of communication as possible helps us communicate with our dogs much more effectively. 

It’s why the “look at me” skill is so important – we add our eyes as an additional form of communication. Hand signals and verbal cues, voice tone, and eye contact reinforce each other and give our dogs more feedback on what we want. The more feedback our dogs get on what we want, the quicker they can understand and learn.

For example, our Golden Retriever makes direct eye contact when there is a treat or on walks. The behavior is ingrained and occurs spontaneously now. I have also taught Bailey to lie down with a downward nod of my head – no verbal cue required.

Bailey also understands the command to “stand” much better when a hand signal is combined with the verbal cue. By incorporating many modes of communication, training is much easier and more effective.

I know that this might sound confusing, so the video below from Zak George discusses the “look at me” skill in-depth and shows how it is taught.

Next Steps

As we can see, the “look at me” skill is an important one in learning and reinforcing communication. This skill becomes especially important when interactions move to environments with more distractions. Like marker training, this cue will be used with other skills to help reinforce listening skills, impulse control, and learning. 

In the next training article, we’ll move on to teaching the “leave it” skill, which is one of the most important skills your dog will learn. The “look at me” and “leave it” skills will also be taught afterward as a combination. These two skills will be critical in teaching your dog to avoid harmful situations and negative interactions. 

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