We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve recently added a dog to your family, or perhaps you were inspired by something you saw on Animal Planet. You have resolved that today is the day, and now is the time that you will finally get your dog to really listen to you, maybe do a trick, or perhaps stop an annoying behavior. You try to get her attention. She looks at you, you look back with a strong, steady gaze to let her know that you aren’t playing around this time. And she blinks, she looks away, she closes her eyes. Anything to break your gaze. It’s like she just doesn’t want to communicate!
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The Root of the Behavior
In the wild, canines, such as wolves and coyotes, often use sustained eye contact as a precursor to dominance challenges. In fact, other mammals use sustained eye contact for the same reason. You may have seen this behavior if you’ve ever see chimpanzees or gorillas at the zoo. But you don’t have to go to the zoo. Think back to times you’ve seen conflict, whether in the anticipation of violence, like at a football game or a party or at a particularly tense meeting at work. You’ve seen people stare at each other in an unspoken dominance contest.
Of course, people stare for other reasons, too. We gaze into the eyes of a lover, we nod and look intently at a friend who’s telling you about a difficult time. We smile at our children and look at them to encourage them to tell us about their day. This type of non-aggressive, focused gaze is almost unheard of in other animals, with one exception: between humans and domesticated dogs. When we stare deeply into the eyes of our dogs, there is a mutual release of oxytocin, a hormone some call the “love drug." The mutual gaze triggers a response in humans that is similar to the parent/child response. Certainly, lots of dog owners have relationships with their dogs that seem more like a parent than a dog owner. We use baby talk with our dogs, we give them cute nicknames, we take them to daycare, and some of us even dress our dogs up in adorable little outfits.
Animal behaviorists and biologists theorize that canines figured out that humans have a soft spot for youngsters and learned to tailor their behavior to mimic puppies. When a mature animal maintains the appearance and behaviors of an immature animal, that is known as “neoteny." In canines, that means that dogs retain their large eyes, round bellies, and soft fur. It also means that domestic dogs are much more playful and vocal than adult wolves. Humans encouraged and participated in this, resulting in selective breeding for these traits, unintentionally at first. Dogs remain immature wolves in order to please us, and we reward them for these changes, thus reinforcing them further. In a way, the modern dog could be said to be the result of a collaborative effort between humans and wolves.
Encouraging the Behavior
When we gaze deeply into the eyes of our dogs, we can have a deep bonding experience. But such experiences are rare, just like with people. If you and your friend are having a deep, philosophical conversation, a sustained gaze will be part of the experience. But how often does that happen? If you aren’t having a serious conversation with your friend and you stare anyway, you are likely going to freak your friend out. It’s the same with dogs. Most eye contacts last one to two seconds. Anything more than that can be just as rude and vaguely threatening as it would be for a human. You should keep this in mind in any canine interaction, particularly when you are unfamiliar with the dog.
Because sustained eye contact has a deep meaning for dogs, many dog trainers recommend using it during training, but they advise using it carefully and judiciously. Use a sustained gaze when you are trying to get your dog’s attention. Once you have her attention, give your dog instructions or otherwise shape the behavior you wish to model or change. Make sure that you are moderating your voice and stance so that your dog isn’t intimidated by your use of the stare. And, as always, make sure that you are handing out treats.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Like people, dogs have distinct personalities. And like people, some dogs are naturally more shy than others. Whether this is due to personal history or mental development may be a mystery, but when you have a shy dog, you will need to take extra steps to make sure she is comfortable meeting your eyes. Try simply putting a leash on your dog and waiting for her to look at you. Once she meets your gaze, give her a treat and praise her. You can also add clicker training to the mix. You need to let your dog know that she doesn’t have to be afraid of your eyes, and, although you are the alpha, you are not trying to intimidate her. Once you have this trust established, you will find training will move much more smoothly.
So there you are. Maybe it is a bar or a coffee shop or the office cafeteria where you notice someone looking at you. No, STARING at you, intently, trying to get your attention. You look and then drop your gaze. When you look again, they’re still staring. You suddenly feel very awkward. Suddenly, you realize that this is probably how your dog feels when you stare. So THAT’S why she looked away. After all, staring is rude.