Years ago, a lady came into our veterinary clinic with two young boys and a puppy. She needed help with teaching her boys how to play more appropriately with their new addition. Apparently they had been quite rough and the puppy was biting them.
I sat down with the family and demonstrated a better way to play with their pet. At no time during this conversation did the boys look at me. I was beginning to feel a little frustrated, thinking that they were not paying attention or weren’t interested.
I spoke to the mother about this, and she told me about the culture of eye contact in their family. The boys were raised in an Asian country. Direct eye contact in their culture was considered to be impertinent, confrontational and even aggressive. She pointed out that avoiding direct eye contact is considered a sign of respect to elders and especially women.
In the United States and some European countries, using soft direct eye contact is considered to be a sign of attentiveness, honesty, confidence and respect for what the other person is saying. This may be a custom that can get people in trouble with dogs. What we accept as a good thing with each other can be very threatening in the “culture” of dogs.
When I meet a new dog, I rarely look directly into its eyes. I look at the whole dog, softly with more of an oblique position of my body. I also blink my eyes frequently. This softens the hard, wide open stare that may be perceived by dogs as a threat.
Most of our herding dogs move livestock by “eye stalking.” “Giving eye” (staring) and moving slowly toward the livestock can cause them to turn away or back up. The steady eye contact usually is combined with crouching, moving forward and stopping.
One of the most pleasant and endearing expressions we receive from our dogs is “soft eyes.” Their eyes may be partially closed, giving the appearance of almost squinting. They may be blinking frequently. They might be slightly looking away from us. Other clusters of expression might be a soft and neutral ear posture, relaxed open mouth and body posture.
It’s interesting to think about how our own culture of eye contact can be so contradictory to that of our beloved canine companions. It’s worth looking into.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training LLC with more than 25 years of experience.