Cat making eye contact
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.

Turn a Negative Into a Positive

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.

Get Closer to Your Cat

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.

Capturing 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.

Lure Her Gaze

An alternative tactic for teaching eye contact is to use a lure to direct your cat’s gaze toward your face. The lure can be a treat or toy — something your cat finds interesting. Catch your cat’s interest by showing her the lure; hold it close enough to her that she can clearly see it but not so close that she can paw at it.
Once your cat is looking at the lure, raise it slowly until you are holding it one or two inches to the side of your face. Wait for a few seconds and then, if your cat glances over slightly toward your face, mark and reward. The reward may be the lure itself.

If your cat does not shift her gaze from the lure to your face, start over: Lower the lure, show it to her again and then raise it so it is close to your face. You can also add a soft kissing noise or other attention-getting sound to encourage your cat to glance over toward your face.

Keep in mind that in the beginning, your cat may shift her eyes to your face only extremely briefly in a quick momentary glance.

When your cat is consistently looking from the lure to your face, begin to fade the lure by hiding the toy or treat inside of your hand. Eventually eliminate the lure entirely and simply hold your hand like it has the lure inside. Add a verbal cue, like “watch” and say it just before you move your hand toward your face.

Reinforce the Behavior

Once your cat is reliably looking at you — regardless of which method you’re using — work on increasing the amount of time you ask her to make eye contact before you reward her. At the same time, continue to occasionally reward brief moments of eye contact to keep your cat engaged with the training.

Start by working one-on-one with your cat; when she has mastered making eye contact with you, have her practice doing so with other people. This can help to boost her confidence with strangers and people she’s less familiar with.

By moving at a comfortable pace and pairing the experience with appreciated rewards, you can teach your cat that eye contact is not a threat but a sign of good things to come.

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