The Department of Ethology in Budapest Hungary, http://familydogproject.elte.hu/index.html
conducts very interesting dog behavior research projects for quite a few years now. Those are real scientific studies done by real behavioral scientists, and although their focus is the family dog, they also study wolves, as control groups, to find out if and how dogs and wolves behaviorally differ. One profound distinction they discovered is that it is natural for dogs to look humans in the eye, and for wolves it isn’t.
It is wonderful to get a scientific confirmation for what many of us positive dog pros knew all along: It is normal for dogs to offer and receive eye contact.
Dogs are domesticated, which means that humans are an accepted part of dogs’ natural environment. And that is true even for the ones not reared by humans - the Budapest scientists studied that as well. People and dogs, cause we shared the same environment for such a long time, evolved together and there are quite a few social similarities. The way we use our eyes it one of them. We can try to kill someone with a laser look, but mostly we pay polite attention to the one we interact with.
So, eye contact is not something people should have to teach dogs. But alas, thanks to the still popular misperception that a dog looking at a person challenges for alpha status, in reality many dogs neither offer that natural form of communication, nor are they able to accept it. Dogs with problem behaviors always get worse as soon as someone looks at them; as soon as they feel paid attention to.
And that’s a shame, cause offered eye contact equals attention, and who wouldn’t want that. A dog encouraged to speak with her eyes willingly connects to the owner to ask for permission or help, which gives the owner control and the dog a copout during a conflict situation. That is what we should foster.
A dog who always averts her eyes is afraid because she was corrected in the past for looking, and one who appears aloof likely has unlearned to look because it was ignored. If the person does not acknowledge eye connection, the dog learns to look to the environment for informational cues.
In both cases it is up to the person to re-teach what should be natural; that “talking” with the eyes is desired and asking for help an option.
Initially you can prompt your dog by saying her name, or even using a treat lure you hold between your eyes. Your dog’s eyes will follow the lure, and she’ll automatically look at you, which you then reward with the treat. Incrementally move your fingers away from your eyes. Most dog quickly understand that it is eye contact you are after, and once she does ask for offered, the emphasis is on offered, connection before you give access to any resource she wants, including her food, a walk, being let outside, allowed off the leash and so on.
Eye contact is attention, and attention will become a default behavior and with it off-leash obedience is much more reliable. Although some dogs signal with a twitch of an ear that they’re with you, prolonged eye contact is an unambiguous sign of deep connection. Once your dog has learned that eye contact is a successful way to communicate with you, she will also do it when he is nervous of something. Eye contact becomes a signal for you to take action before she reactively lunges and barks. Eye contact as a coping skill decreases stress and fear, and the resulting unwanted emotional outbursts.
Every dog should be desensitized to accept eye contact from strangers, cause strangers will look at your dog even if you tell them not to. The advice some trainers give to tell all strangers to ignore your pit bull at the end of your leash is not realistic. Especially the fearful of canine teeth person will look - guaranteed. And if you have a cute, but shy dog, people will look also trying to make friends. It’s difficult enough to get them not to pat uninvited.
Needless to say, never, ever punish your dog when she looks at you. Not even if she gives you the hairy eyeball. If your dog throws you a hard, intimidating warning look you have a deeper-seated relationship issue that you won’t solve by confrontationally staring her down.
My goal with my dogs is for them to signal with their eyes when they want something, when they are worried or confused about something, and that they heard me.
When your dog looks at you, you have her attention, and only if you have her attention giving her a command makes any sense. If your dog is not paying attention, she has you tuned out and is unlikely able to obey.
From now on, encourage, acknowledge and reinforce eye contact. Especially when presented with stimuli. To withhold the environment from a dog is as unrealistic as telling every person not to look at her. Dogs, people, cats, cars and squirrels do exist, and it is normal for every species to observe cohabitants. The important goal is to have a dog who periodically and voluntarily checks in with you, the owner, her lifeline. So “look at that” is okay, but “look at me” is what should be reinforced with a game, or a treat, or a whole lot of loving attention. Then maybe some day you, like us, will rarely use the come command anymore, cause your dog is “with you” the matter what, and you know she is cause she looks at you.