Sunday, January 8, 2012

Look into My Eyes (Actually... Don't.)

In Western cultures, we value eye contact as one of the most important parts of communication. In our culture, eye contact shows we are paying attention, it is how we judge someone's character, it is the way we show how we are processing thought. We have a plethora of sayings about eyes, "Eyes are the window to the soul." "Don't believe it until you see it with your own eyes." "Look at me when I'm talking to you!"

The meaning of eye contact changes in different cultures, but one thing is for sure: humans value eye contact when it comes to bonding and affection. This is something that happens from a young age. In a 1977 study, scientists found that babies shift focus to the eyes upon hearing verbalizations as early as 5 weeks. As babies got older, eye contact intensified. A 2002 study showed that babies followed the direction of gaze rather than head direction. Long, loving gazes between people show an increase in levels of oxytocin (the bonding hormone) and dopamine (released when we engage in pleasurable activity). And this does not change with cultures -- eye contact between loved-ones is immediately rewarded in our brains with a rush of feel-good chemicals.

Dogs, however, do not share this affinity for eye contact. Unless they have been conditioned from a young age to accept eye contact, they quickly grow uncomfortable with prolonged periods of staring. For example, Ollie has learned through our training that eye contact is valuable to me and is important for him to make humans pay attention. Tonight, he shoved his nose in my face exactly 3 minutes past normal dinnertime and looked me in the eye. While he was looking at me for a total of fifteen seconds, he never held direct gaze longer than a second. He instead made direct contact in little flashes but mostly looked slightly to my right at my cheekbones.

Dogs that are friends will make quick eye contact to signal interest, excitement, or initiation of play combined with corresponding body language. For dogs, prolonged eye contact only comes as a hard stare. Combined with various other body movements, this hard stare can communicate:

I'm the boss.
I'm challenging you.
Don't test me on this.
You are a threat and I am deciding what to do about it.
You need to back off.

This is why, when dealing with all dogs but especially unsocialized dogs, we must be aware of what our eye communication says. This is exceptionally important when we are talking to a dog. Dogs are unsure of what our noises mean. Combine an unfamiliar action a with body language a dog believes has context of a threat, and you have a recipe for a miscommunication. At the minimum, a dog feels threatened. At the worst, you have a dog lunging at your face.

A soft gaze directed at the forehead space in-between a dog's ears is a good place to train your gaze when observing behavior. Any accidental eye contact you make will be contextually accurate to the dog. It will be "checking in" rather than a threat or stare.

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