Direct eye contact is viewed as a threat in the canines’ body language. When two dogs greet, if one makes direct eye contact, hopefully the second dog will look away as a sign of submission to avoid conflict. If the second dog does not look or turn away there’s a good chance that a fight will occur. Many people would view the second dog as not being very friendly for avoiding dog number one. This is quite often misunderstood by humans and is the reason that children often get bit. They tend to stare at dogs and don’t know to back off when the dog begins to give them warning signals. Dogs that are properly greeting each other should avoid direct eye contact and sniff each other instead. This is how dogs learn about each other: what sex they are, if they’ve been spayed or neutered, do they live with cats or other animals, and more.
It’s very important to work with your dog to accept eye contact. We want to make them comfortable making direct eye contact with people. Eventually we want them to learn to look at us for directions and permission.
Begin to teach your dog the “look” command by luring your dog to look at you using your empty (or baited, if you must) hand. Mark and reward your dog as soon as eye contact is made. If your dog is reluctant to make direct eye contact, break the exercise down into small achievable segments. At first, reward your dog for looking up, then for glances towards your face, then for making eye contact for one second, and so on.
The next step is to make eye contact voluntary… the correct choice. With your dog on leash, hold your baited hand down at your side or out from your body at shoulder level. Wait for your dog to make eye contact. Mark and reward. Ignore any and all behaviors from your dog if he tries to get the treat out of your hand. Let your dog figure out that the way to the reward is by looking at you. The second he makes eye contact, mark and reward. Remember to release (giving permission to look away) your dog from eye contact.
Next you are going to ignore the quick glances and only reward the look that means you have my undivided attention. Don’t be stingy with the treats. At first you will be rewarding your dog every few seconds. Then gradually add more time between treat rewards while keeping the eye contact.
Add your cue. You can start adding a verbal command when you have a solid 5-10 seconds’ worth of eye contact. Automatic eye contact can also be added to the heel and front commands.
Eye contact and involvement becomes an anchor for your dog. Your dog learns that it’s calming to make eye contact, to anchor his emotions and lock his focus on you whenever he is confronted with a situation causing conflict or arousal. Remember that dogs are thinking about whatever they are looking at.
Now that your dog has learned to pay attention and look at you, you’re going to work on keeping your dog involved with you. We want him to learn that when we ask him to work we expect him to ignore all other distractions. This can prove to be quite challenging.
We are asking our dogs for their undivided attention, no matter what. Make sure that you are extending the same courtesy to your dog. Don’t you become distracted with your cell phone, thinking about your afternoon appointments, thinking about your next meal, etc. Make the same commitment to involvement that you are asking from your dog.
Your dog is always going to be challenged with distraction. This is unavoidable. It’s OK for your dog to give a quick glance at the distraction, but not to say “Oh… I really need to go check that out.” Here are some ways to begin to teach your dog to continue to pay attention to you.
- Be patient. Wait for your dog’s attention. Stop waiting if your dog begins to react (barking, lunging).
- Back away from the distraction until your dog turns and looks at you.
- Get between your dog and the distraction.
- Carefully move into your dog.
- Turn and walk away. Be carefully not to jerk the leash. Continue moving until your dog attends to you.
- Don’t be to verbal or use leash corrections.