Dogs use their eyes for many reasons. Around my house, if Poppy’s meal is a few minutes late, Ed and I are treated to penetrating laser eyes as a silent reminder that she wants dinner now!
Poppy says, "I'm so worried I won't be served my dinner on time! "
I love to focus on dogs' eyes when I photograph them, but it’s often difficult because my large camera lens looks like a big eye to some dogs and they avoid looking at it. When I have time to get to know a subject, I’ll put the lens cap on and offer to let them sniff my camera before I use it again.
For dogs, eye contact takes on many meanings. A direct stare from a person or another dog can reassure, threaten, welcome, warn, question, or demand attention. For someone who wants a great relationship with dogs, there is a lot to learn about eye contact.
Before you can train your dog to do anything, you need his or her attention. Some folks use the cue, “Watch me!” pointing to their eyes and holding the dog’s gaze as they praise their pal for the correct behavior. That simple, “Watch me!” can come in handy when you need to distract your dog from something that might cause him to bark or react in some way that you don’t allow.
Once this is mastered, you can move on to training your dog to follow your gaze by looking and pointing to an object thereby directing the dog’s attention to something else. Start with fun things such as a toy you’d like him to bring to you or a place you want her to go to settle down.
Your dog may also try to communicate with you by making eye contact and then gaze at what they want or need. I love to let my dog solve her own problems and she usually does a great job of figuring out how to free a stuck toy or hold a chew to get the best angle of attack. But, occasionally, she will turn to one of us for an assist. Often, I can tell what she needs by the look in her eyes and where she tries to direct my eyes.
There is an emotional bonus to all this eye contact. A recent study by animal behaviorist Takefumi Kikusui found that, “When interacting and exchanging gazes, both dogs and their owners experienced rushes of oxytocin in their brains.” This increases your emotional bond.
Don’t make eye contact if …
While eye contact with your own dog can be beneficial, you really have to have a clear understanding of canine body language if you are going to make eye contact with a strange dog. An unfamiliar dog may read your stare as a form of dominance or aggression and react accordingly.
If you’re lucky, the reaction might be submission, but you could also find yourself facing a snarling canine. You are better off approaching a strange dog with your eyes slightly averted, speaking quietly, and using soft body language.
When you have the opportunity, observe dogs who are experts at using their eyes. Watch a sheepdog use her eyes to control sheep or a hunter keen on his prey. Notice how a retriever can focus on the object he’ll locate and return to his person. Pay attention to the way a guide dog checks the traffic before leading a blind person across a street. The eyes have it!
Words: Penny Cherubino (Adapted for BostonZest from one of her "City Paws" newspaper columns.)
Photos: ©2016 Penny & Ed Cherubino plus the last photo from iStockphoto.com