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  • Darrin Greene

Look at me! The importance of teaching your dog to make eye contact

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 or person posing as a trainer (those are all too common these days) 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).

An easy example for you to see in action is giving your dog his food. Assuming you’re doing things right and feeding your dog meals, do this test. Put your dog’s food in the bowl and hold your arm out away from your body. Where is your dog looking? Even if you tell your dog to sit before feeding, it’s likely they’re looking at the food bowl, not making eye contact. If they are making eye contact, put their bowl on the floor, and if they stay in place, check their eyes. No cheating. Don’t stand there and say sit, sit, sit or stay, stay, stay… no giving the “look” command (you shouldn’t need one of those) or saying the dog’s name. Just hold the bowl out or put it down and see where the dog’s attention is focused. If they make sustained eye contact, then you didn’t need to read this article. If they’re not, stay with me.

Most of the dogs I see in this situation are vibrating, bouncing around, giving their paw, barking or doing some other thing, all while staring at the food bowl, drool running down their chin. Even those who sit before eating really aren’t asking permission, rather, they’re responding to their owner’s repeated commands and refusal to put the bowl down until they “sit”.

What if I told you I don’t care if the dog sits? I don’t care. I really, really don’t. What I care about is that your dog asks for it’s food instead of ordering you to give it to them.

You see, all that crazy excitement your dog displays at feeding time, that’s him saying “feed me Monkey” over and over again, until you finally do what he says. He sees the interaction pretty simply. He’s thinking “I bounce all over and wag my tail and maybe I bark once or twice, then the Monkey gives me my food”. Even if they sit, they’re habituated to the position to the point they really don’t have to think about it much, if at all. They just do it without thinking and never stop to actually ASK for permission to eat. Their brain never slows down enough to ask.

This interaction isn’t doing what most people think it’s doing. They make their dog sit before eating as a passive way to establish authority, but in fact, they are transferring the authority to their dog, at least in his mind, by not waiting for voluntary eye contact.

If you want to use feeding time as a training tool to help establish and maintain pack leadership, all you really have to do is put their food in the bowl, then stand there and wait for them to stand still and make sustained eye contact. This is them slowing down, thinking through the problem and ASKING for your help.

You might go so far with some pretty well trained dogs as to put their food bowl down and call them away from it. When you do this, it would be very likely that the dog keeps looking back at the bowl. If you ask them to sit facing away from it, they will probably turn toward it, looking away from you. It’s only when they turn back and make eye contact that they’ve finally signaled they are cooperating and need your help to get what they want.

You want your dog asking for permission at all times! “Nothing in life is free” is a popular mantra with the positive only “training” set, 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.

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