As dog owners, we think the world of our pets. We talk to them and we interpret every gesture as a conversation. Sometimes, our dogs make their meaning crystal clear - for instance, think about how obvious your dog makes it when she needs to go potty, or when she’s ready to eat. Our dogs will practically turn themselves inside out when they want to be clear.
And yet, despite all this effort - or maybe because of it - we look for meaning behind every little move our dogs make. Who hasn’t found themselves asking if a dog’s belch means that she enjoyed her dinner? We look for meaning in every action our dogs perform, regardless of how tiny or innocent those actions might be. We know that this is mostly wishful thinking on our part, and we feel silly doing it. And then, suddenly, out of the blue, our dogs will do something so cute, so charming, so . . . human, that we get giddy all over again.
The Root of the Behavior
Dogs, like most other mammals, don’t often use their faces for expression. But after thousands of years with humans, they have adapted to our desires and wishes, often using their behavior to manipulate humans.
Science has shown that the domestication of dogs began when early wolves first noticed that humans often left behind food for scavengers to dine on. From there, it likely didn’t take long for humans to notice that dogs tended to keep other animals away, either by directly challenging them or by serving as an early alarm system. And the dogs, of course, eventually noticed that certain behaviors got more food from the people.
Day by day, year after year, people began training dogs to perform tasks that they found useful. Training dogs, for instance, to keep certain animals together in a herd, such as sheep, and to keep other animals away. For this work, people rewarded the dogs by giving them food and shelter, and later, affection, medication, and squeaky toys. Science knows HOW the dog was domesticated, but scientists are still divided over whether humans domesticated dogs, or dogs domesticated humans. Maybe the truth is we domesticated each other.
In any event, ever since those early campfires, we have trained dogs to do our bidding, first to perform our tasks, and later to entertain us. Most of us don’t herd sheep anymore or shoot ducks out of the sky for our dinner, although we still have German Shepherd dogs and Labrador Retrievers. Instead, we have found other uses for our dogs. They still work, but instead of getting up at the crack of dawn to dive into ice cold water and pick up a tasty bird carcass that they won’t get to enjoy, our dogs run agility courses and accompany us to the office, and sit still for photos, which might be turned into memes and/or GIFs. This brings us to our winking dog.
Encouraging the Behavior
Among dogs, eye contact is a sign of aggression. Dogs literally stare at each other in the eye, and if neither one breaks the gaze, that’s when the fighting starts. Among people, however, eye contact is more than polite - it’s an integral part of communication. People expect eye contact, and we reward eye contact. A dog who holds our gaze and doesn’t raise her hackles or growl often gets rewarded; a kind word, a scratch behind the ear, maybe even a treat. Because of that, dogs compromise. They meet the gaze of their people, but they break the stare by blinking, or even dropping their eyes and returning to the eyes of the person, something they would not do with another dog. But your dog will do it with you, and occasionally, she will only close one eye, a wink.
So, where does that leave you? If your dog exhibits a behavior you want to encourage, you should reward and encourage the behavior. This is called “shaping.” While shaping a behavior, you should make sure you are well stocked with treats to use on your dog. Be sure to praise and reward your dog when she performs the behavior. If you’d like to encourage your dog to wink, a trick you can use is to touch your dog’s whiskers on the side of her face that you would like to see wink. Your dog will wink involuntarily. Before you touch her cheek, give her a command word, like “wink” or “flirt,” then touch her whisker. Each time she winks, be sure to give her praise and a treat.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Be aware that some breeds with short nose and fleshy faces, such as Chow Chows, are prone to a genetic condition called “entropion”, in which one or both eyelids flip inward towards the eye, causing the dog to blink and wink out of pain and irritation. This condition is painful and can, if left untreated, lead to ulcerated corneas and blindness. Entropion is often treated with surgery. Of course, it is possible for any dog to end up with irritants in the eye, such as hair, dirt or dust. If your dog seems to be excessively concerned with her eye or if you see weeping or excessive winking or blinking, be sure to talk to your vet.
The relationship between people and dogs has affected both species a great deal. Teaching your dog to wink may seem like a silly amusement, but it has its roots in a long tradition of mutual training, much of which has been more entertaining than useful. Plus, when your dog winks it gives her the appearance of having an attitude, and that small gesture encapsulates the relationship between man and beast.