Dog’s Eye View: The eyes have it
One of the first behaviors we teach in dog training class is the “name game.” This simple exercise involves saying the dog’s name and when he looks at you, giving him a treat. We have all family members do this so each one can address the dog. Trying to speak to someone or begin a conversation with a dog without eye contact can be difficult.
When we begin to teach a new behavior or just want to start on a walk or have a game, we ask for attention in the form of eye contact from our dog. Just as with people, if their attention is away from you, they are probably not listening too carefully.
It may seem obvious, but dogs will pay more attention to us if they are facing us than if they are looking away.
There are some interesting aspects of communication that dogs do with their eyes. Staring or “hard eyes” combined with tense furrowed facial muscles and a stillness can be a precursor to a fight or an indication of a threat. “Soft eyes” with relaxed facial muscles combined with squinting or frequent blinking can be an indication of a relaxed and non-threatening demeanor. A prolonged soft eye contact or gaze directed toward and returned by us can have a calming effect on both parties.
Both hard and soft eye expressions are read or understood in concert with the rest of the dog’s body and more generally in the environment in which it is occurring. We would also make note of the attitude of the ears, mouth or lips and body posture for a complete picture.
A unique aspect of canine cognition involves a dog’s ability to follow our eyes and or a pointed finger in the direction of an object and understand that they should go in that direction. We may take this for granted as dogs do this so well, but many species of animals do not do this. This is useful information. Hunters using retrievers on land and in water direct their dogs with whistles, arm and hand signals toward game birds. Ranchers can direct their stock dogs to move to and fro with whistles, verbal cues and gestures.
As this article began, there is one aspect of this ability that our dogs share with us that is important. That’s the dog’s name, which means, “Look at me. I’m talking to you.” It works best to start with name, eye contact and then give the directions.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training LLC with over 30 years of experience.
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