This is a guest post from Eric at Dog Spelled Forward. Be sure to pay him a visit where you can find lots of information on Dog behaviour and much more. This is nearly the end of the Dog training Online series so if you want to submit a guest post to this Dog blog you only have a few days left in which to do so. Thanks to Eric for a great article.
When we are training our dogs, we start with a huge handicap right from the start: the communication gap. We speak in words and sentences, while dogs don’t really “speak” at all, at least not with nouns, verbs and indirect objects. They are, however, constantly providing information to the world via body language and behaviors.
There is one form of communication that we primates use that dogs can use in almost the same way: eye contact. Eye contact means you have my attention. When we call our dog’s name, what we are looking for is eye contact, very much the same way we expect it when we call a person’s name.
Eye contact is also something we look for in “impulse control” behaviors like wait and stay. A good handler is watching his (or her) dog’s eyes. If they wander, attention is waning and it’s time to regain it. If they meet with yours, you have your dog’s attention.
When we train these behaviors, we shape our dog’s behavior into giving us sustained eye contact. A good trainer never releases a dog from a wait or a stay without eye contact. Even in a “heel,” most trainers are probably more concerned with where their dog is looking during a heel than anything else. Where the eyes go, the rest of the dog is sure to follow.
A while back I was out walking one of my dogs, Gage, early in the morning. I was not feeling well and was not paying attention to him, anything else really. We walked across a long municipal parking lot that is always empty at that time of day to his favorite spot, to just outside the entrance. This is a very quiet area and Gage is probably my best loose leash walker, so I can get away with not paying attention.
We got to the far end of the lot and went through the smaller part of the entrance gate for people. The larger part (for vehicles) was closed and locked. After we went through, we stopped. I stood there for a moment, still under the influence of Nyquil and inadequately caffeinated. I looked down at Gage. His body was pointed across the entrance of the lot, directly at his favorite spot. He turned and looked me dead in the eye, as if to say “Can we go there? I really need to go.” We did, and he did.
We brought Gage into our home about 3 years ago. He was already 6 – 8 months old and terrified of everything, especially people. Getting any sort of eye contact from him was very difficult. Now, he uses it to tell me where to walk him.
We can’t hold a conversation with your dogs, but when we pay attention to the details we can truly communicate. Trying watching your dogs eyes the next time you work together.
What a great topic.
In the first clicker training class I took with my dog, we did quite a few exercises related to getting the dog’s attention and getting/maintaining eye contact.
My dog (a Brittany) is easily distracted. Watching her eyes is a great way for me to tell how much of her attention I have.
Some variation on “watch me” or the “name game” is always an important part of basic obedience. Sounds like your class was great.
One of my malcontents (Buddha) is a Brittany mix. Beautiful dogs.
Lovely post Eric. Eye contact is an essential ingredient of a good relationship with a dog, yet it’s too subtle for many people to notice. I find this interesting because, as you say, as primates it’s one of the things we do, like hugging – and generally we impose all sorts of human impulses and rituals on our dogs. Wonder why not this one so much?
Thanks for the great post Eric! I love it when my dogs turn their baby blues on me! I’ve always felt that we communicate that way!
That’s a really good question, Kelly. Why are most people in such a rush to hug their dogs but oblivious to eye contact? Food for thought.
I think my dogs use eye contact to order me around–I always have to give them treats when they pull the sad-puppy-eye-trick!
I know this is a dog blog, but I just wanted to share that something similar is true of cats. So much can be communicated through eye contact.
I have heard before that they did a study between domesticated animals (like dogs and cats) and primates (like monkeys and apes) to see which could be more easily trained. It turned out that domestic animals are more easily trained because they look to their owners for cues – where as the primates have no such conditioning. It was said that domesticated animals have learned to rely on us for food and other provision and so look to us, whereas primates do not.
Maybe we’re more connected to dogs than apes… food for thought. 🙂
Thanks on a very nice post Eric. I really love it when Chloe (my Lab) looks at me with her ‘baby eyes’ 🙂 (that’s how i call it when she wants to ask for something, lol!)
Interesting question about the rush to hug a dog but not make eye contact. I completely agree with you on the importance of eye contact with your dog. People often underestimate the power of eye contact, not only with with your pet, but with humans as well. I think it is near impossible to establish a relationship, especially when training a dog, if eye contact is not involved.
I love the idea, dogs really have deep emotions over things around them. Now I know eye contact is a deep communication to know dogs feelings.
I’ve had some trainers tell me to have a command for eye contact like “watch” which is what I’m training my dog to do right now. Other trainers tell me not to use a command at all but to expect the dog to do it naturally and then praise him when he does. Which do you think is better?
It’s strange but I had never actually given this much thought as our Dogs have always been very close monitors of us and will often look in to our eyes.
Maybe because there are more of them and we have had to ensure that we are the pack leaders so firmly. They all seem to read a lot out of how we look at them. So for me natural is best but I guess it really does depend on the Dog.
Talk about sitting on the fence! Sorry 😉
Interesting question about the rush to hug a dog but not make eye contact. I completely agree with you on the importance of eye contact with your dog. People often underestimate the power of eye contact, not only with with your pet, but with humans as well. I think it is near impossible to establish a relationship, especially when training a dog, if eye contact is not involved. A trainer once told me that human beings and dogs have a lot in common in relation to eye contact in that if their is trust and a feeling of security; eye contact is maintained. If there is a lack of trust and feeling of security; eye contact is unsteady.
My youngest lab, Sonny (17 mths), uses his eyes a lot without turning his head. I guess you would say he cuts his eyes as a rule, rather than turning his head. It is as if he is contemplating what he is viewing. it is so hilarious and I have never had a dog that did this.