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The Dos and Don’ts of Making Eye Contact with Dogs

 by lucy on 09 Jun 2016 |
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While dogs are capable of forming a range of barks, grunts and whimpers, their primary means of communication is body language. As with people, eye contact is one of the foremost forms of body language used by our canine companions. However, locking eyes means something very different in the canine world and people need to be aware that their friendly gaze may be considered a challenge or threat before meeting the eyes of an unfamiliar dog.
Humans view eye contact as a polite way to connect and show interest. Dogs, however, see the same action as a sign of dominance. Dogs rarely make prolonged eye contact with other dogs and a straight gaze is generally deemed threatening behavior. In most cases, one dog will break eye contact with another to avoid a potential fight. In the same way, a dog you’ve locked in a stare may show submissive behavior, such as looking away or rolling over onto his back. Some dogs, however, react aggressively to the perceived challenge, backing up and barking or even biting in response. Rather than unwittingly threaten a dog you’ve just met, then, greet him in a way that is comfortable for both parties. Approach the dog with your body slightly angled, so your shoulders aren’t squared towards him, and avert your eyes from a direct gaze. This non-threatening body language combined with a soft voice will let the dog know you are not a threat and should deflect any aggressive reactions from your new canine friend.
There are, of course, some settings in which eye contact doesn’t disturb dogs. Dogs will locks eyes with each other to initiate playful games such as chasing, for example. However, you’ll most often catch canines politely avoiding any prolonged stares, with one dog turning his head away from the other in an appeasing gesture. In the same way, your dog may defer dominance to you by avoiding your stare, but you can teach him that eye contact with people is positive and can lead to rewards, such as attention or treats. Ideally, eye contact training begins when your dog is a puppy, although adult dogs can learn to make non-threatening eye contact with humans, too. One easy way to teach your dog to meet your gaze is by simply putting him on a leash and either waiting for him to make eye contact on his own or prompting him with a treat a few inches from your face. Once he locks eyes with you, reward him with a cue, either verbal or with a clicker, and a treat. Over time, you can practice the same routine in different settings and with new people, teaching your pet to lock eyes with a range of people. If your dog displays aggression in response to eye contact, however, ask your veterinarian to refer you to a professional trainer for help.


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