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For most humans, eye contact is an everyday occurrence. It shows interest and respect. Many of us look close friends and total strangers in the eye and never think twice about it.
In a cat’s world, the opposite is true. Your cat may consider prolonged eye contact to be anywhere from rude to threatening. A cat’s norm for friendly interactions is either complete avoidance or very brief moments of eye contact.
In fact, this is why cats so frequently choose the one non-cat person in the room over the cat enthusiasts, because that individual’s avoidant behavior tells the cat that he or she is friendly.
While many cats retain their innate tendency to react negatively to eye contact, this doesn’t mean you have to give up on the idea of locking eyes with your precious feline. Pairing eye contact with positive rewards can help teach your cat to willingly look you — and your friends and family and the veterinarian — in the eye on command.
I use two different strategies for teaching eye contact, based on the individual cat’s personality. I suggest you try both and see which works best for your cat.
Pairing eye contact with a verbal cue and a consistent positive reward can help decrease your cat’s fear of the experience.If your cat is shy or hesitant around people, rewarding eye contact can be a powerful way to build her confidence and help make her more comfortable with humans.
If you are dealing with a shy cat, start by positioning yourself as close to the cat as she will allow — she may let you get fairly close, as long as you don’t reach out to touch her, or you may need to sit on the other side of the room. As your cat relaxes and gets more comfortable with the training, you can move closer to her.
Avoid looking directly at your cat. Instead, sit with your body turned slightly to the side and use your peripheral vision to watch your cat. Reward her with a delicious treat each time her head turns even slightly in your direction. Eventually, she should gain enough confidence to engage in more direct glances at you.
When your cat gets comfortable looking in your direction, begin to turn your body, little by little, until you are facing her. Glance at her and then look away slowly. Occasionally add in a soft, slow blink to show her that you are friendly. Continue to reward her for even the briefest of looks in your direction.
As your cat becomes accustomed to your glances, start rewarding her only for making eye contact, no matter how momentary. You can also add a verbal cue, like “yes,” to mark and reinforce the eye contact.
Once your cat is confident enough to look repeatedly at you, add a verbal cue to prompt the behavior. Give the cue — “watch,” for example — just as your cat glances toward you. Mark and reward when she makes eye contact.
If your cat is already comfortable around people, you can use a more direct approach to teach her to make eye contact. There are two strategies that work well with many of these cats: naturally capturing moments of eye contact with a verbal cue or using a lure to draw the cat’s attention.
For cats who already make eye contact at specific times, like while waiting for a meal or asking for attention, capturing works by pairing a word like “watch” with the action of making eye contact. Say the word just before you know your cat will look up at you and then mark the eye contact with a “yes” or “good” and reward her with something she enjoys.
Eventually, you can begin to use the word “watch” anytime you anticipate your cat is about to look in your direction. Immediately follow the eye contact with a reward.Over time, this will teach her to associate the cue — “watch” — with the behavior of making eye contact.
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