Skittish dog

Q. My rescue dog is uncomfortable with eye contact. Why does eye contact make her act so skittish? How can I teach her that eye contact is an OK thing?

In many human cultures, eye contact is viewed as a way to make a connection and show interest, but for dogs, eye contact sends a different message. Seeing eye-to-eye is likely viewed by your dog as more of a threat than a measure of good will. Depending on the socialization your dog received as a puppy, her genetic predisposition and her experience before you adopted her, eye contact may actually be perceived as a significant enough threat to spark aggression. Unless she is taught that eye contact is OK, it is possible that she could progress from simply being skittish to biting.

Why Dogs Don’t Make Eye Contact

In the canine world, prolonged eye contact rarely occurs in friendly contexts; it is more commonly seen as a threat or challenge to another dog. Direct eye contact may occur in play, such as a bow with eye contact to initiate a chase sequence, but outside of specific situations, prolonged eye contact between two dogs is rare. Instead, you will more frequently see one dog turn his head away from another dog in order to avoid eye contact; this is an appeasement gesture designed to diffuse any potential conflict and avoid a fight. Though direct eye contact may not be natural for dogs, canines will often learn that eye contact with people can result in good things, like attention and food. One study found that dogs are able to track human eye movement, which helps them perceive a person’s intent.

Teach Your Dog to Make Eye Contact

Eye contact is one of the most important first behaviors to teach a dog. Puppyhood is the prime time to train a dog to make eye contact, but training can be done into adulthood as well — for example, with a newly adopted adult dog. However, if your dog displays any form of aggression in response to eye contact, a professional should be involved in the training process. Talk with your veterinarian, who can refer you to a qualified trainer if needed. My favorite way to teach eye contact is by teaching “look at me.” Teach your dog this cue by letting eye contact happen naturally on its own. Start by putting your dog on leash; have a treat bag on hand. Keep your body still and wait for your dog to look up toward your eyes. As soon as your dog makes eye contact, mark the behavior with a “good” or a click and immediately treat. For dogs unlikely to make eye contact, prompt the behavior by holding a treat a few inches away from your face. If your dog makes any eye movement away from the treat and toward your face, mark the behavior and reward with the treat. When your pooch begins to readily make eye contact, add a cue to the behavior, such as “look,” just as your dog begins to shift her gaze to your eyes. Once your dog understands that making eye contact with you is a good thing, teach her to generalize the behavior. Practice making eye contact in a variety of positions: while you’re sitting, kneeling, bending over or doing any other common movement. Also practice in a range of environments until your dog comfortably offers the behavior when asked regardless of context. Practice “look” with a variety of other people, starting with close family and friends and working up to people the dog is less familiar with. Progress with training only as long as your dog remains relaxed and does not display fear.  Give her ample rewards so that she learns to associate eye contact with positive things. With training and patience, your dog can learn to make eye contact. If she exhibits any signs of stress, fear or aggression, however, contact your veterinarian immediately for additional advice.