Dog’s Eye View: When in doubt, look to me
September 29, 2017
It seems that we are seeing dogs that are reactive at the sight of dogs, people or novel events with much greater frequency than in past years. Part of the cause of this may be due to the way our world is today. There appears to be a greater number of dogs in a smaller space than before.
Many individuals or families have multiple dogs in their home. Life is a little more cramped. There are a lot more things out there that distract their attention.
When your dog makes eye contact with you, at that moment, he is receptive to your conversation with him. Recognizing this will put you ahead of the game when it comes to his responsiveness to your cues. It's such a powerful behavior that it's a shame to throw it away by ignoring him or not paying attention to him.
You may have noticed folks who are out with their dog who spend time chatting with someone or crossing a street and their dog glances up at them numerous times with absolutely no feedback from the owner. This dog is checking in.
He may be looking for direction as to which way they will go or perhaps is anxious about the proximity of the cars passing by. In a way he's saying, "Help me. You wish to take the lead in our relationship but now leave me in the dark. I am glancing up at your eyes but you are not listening to me."
In early training with any dog, young or mature, I acknowledge that beautiful moment when my dog seeks my eyes by looking back at his eyes and giving him a treat, therefore reinforcing his eye contact. I want him to understand that this important behavior has real value to him and me and that it pays well.
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I take this understanding to a higher level by encouraging my dog to not only check out his environment, but to look to me when there is something there that might be scary to him. Since I am also paying attention to our surroundings when I am out, I will be fairly aware of something that might cause my dog to bark or lunge or try to run.
Preemptively I might say, "Take a look." Then, before he gets stuck staring at something in the distance, I will say his name and when he turns to look at me, I will reinforce that eye contact with a very tasty tidbit and verbal praise.
I practice the sequence with my dog of looking away and then turning back to me very frequently when I am out with him. I want this to become the first thought in his mind when he might otherwise ramp up and start barking and pulling on leash.
I might then turn away and head in a different direction. Pressing on in the direction of something that triggers a worst nightmare episode is not helpful. I am not testing him, I'm teaching him. I'm practicing again and again what I want him to do when he is afraid.
I taught this behavior to my bull terrier, Stuart, who had a propensity to bark and lunge at dogs approaching us while on a walk. He ultimately defaulted to the looking and turning behavior to the point that I did not have to cue him. I did however highly reinforce that behavior with super treats combined with saying "good boy" until the very end of his life.
My young dog, Lawrence, is in the process of learning this same behavior. He tends to alarm bark at dogs and some novel things in the environment. We started working on "look and turn" when he first came to live with us in January of this year.
We were making progress when he was attacked by two dogs at a rest stop. I wrote about this in a previous article. He seems to be even more alert now, scanning his environment when we are out walking. I can't blame him, but feel it's important to put more emphasis on what he can do instead of reacting.
My goal for him is to look to me when he's in doubt.
Sandra Kruczek is a certified professional dog trainer at Total Teamwork Training, LLC with more than 30 years of experience.