Look at me! The importance of teaching your dog to make eye contact
Updated: Apr 24
Dogs use their eyes just like humans. Of course, the first usage is to simply see the world around them and like humans, a dog’s eyes will get big when he’s scared, hard when he’s feeling aggressive and soft when he’s feeling compliant.
Dogs also use eye contact, just as humans do to signal they are paying attention. If it’s a staring match, they’re looking for a fight. They also use eye contact with us as a way of asking “am I doing this right?”, or “may I?”.
It’s this last usage that I want to focus on, since it can be so useful in developing a good relationship with our dogs.
Your dog making voluntary eye contact as a way of asking for access to a reward is a signal that they’re looking for your approval/permission to proceed. This is your dog volunteering to work with you as a way to get what they want. If you have the patience to wait for your dog to look at you, you can go a long way to communicating “I am the key to all things good in your world”.
I don’t know a single trainer that doesn’t endeavor to have a dog work with their human in a cooperative relationship. Simply waiting for eye contact in certain situations will help you establish this important relationship component.
In a lot of contexts, I worry less about what “behavior” the dog is performing and more about voluntary eye contact. Most people ask for the same behavior over and over, so the dog eventually learns to do that thing without ever thinking or taking his mind off the prize. I’d much rather people gave the dog no direction and simply waited for them to ask permission to proceed (with eye contact).
You want your dog asking for permission at all times! “Nothing in life is free” is a popular mantra, but I don’t know too many people who really put it into practice. Rather, people tend to substitute a low level obedience behavior, usually performed poorly, as the dog “asking permission”.
In fact, all you need is sustained, voluntary eye contact to accomplish this goal.
Your dog uses its eyes in a lot of ways. They are truly your window into how your dog is feeling and what they’re thinking. As you go through your day, even with your well trained dog, take a look at how much eye contact they make when they want something. You can never have enough.
Look for eye contact at the crate door, the house door, the food bowl and any other time your dog wants something from you. Leave out the obedience commands and wait until they respectfully ask for the thing they want. They’ll start doing it much more often and you’ll be glad you waited.