Dog Training Secret # 1 – The Eyes Have It

There has been significant research conducted on dogs over the past few decades.  Even people who aren’t “dog lovers” are recognizing the incredible value that dogs offer to the everyday lives of humans.  Examples include therapy dogs, dogs that are trained to detect cancer, diabetic trauma, drugs, bombs, etc., and of course, dogs who are our best friends.

Some researchers have looked at how dogs became so “close” to humans.  They wanted to know how and why dogs chose to be with humans instead of running wild.  And ultimately, they’ve studied how it seems that dogs can read our minds – how they appear to know what we are going to do almost before we do it.

Have you ever wondered how they do it?  You’ve probably noticed your dog “reading your mind” every day.  If you could look at yourself in slow motion, here is what you might see: When you think about leaving the house, you start to look for your purse or your keys.  When you decide it’s time for a snack, you probably glance toward the kitchen before you get up.  When it’s time for bed, your eyes are getting heavy.  Your dog sees all of this.

Well guess what?  Researchers have found that one of the most important ways that dogs know us so well is because they study our facial expressions, and especially our eyes.  They learn to detect the meaning of eye contact, smiles, frowns, and tears.  They study us to know when to start to beg to go for that car ride, or when to also go for a snack, or when to try to beat you to the bed.

Somehow I must have intuitively stumbled on this fact about dogs about 50 years before I read the research.  I realized that the more eye contact I’ve had with my dogs, the better we were communicating.  Better communication equals better behavior.

So, when I first begin to train my dog (or puppy) I gently hold his face to look into my eyes so that he can learn to connect with me and “read” me through my eyes and my expressions.  (Apparently, he innately will know how to do this – I’m just giving this behavior a jump-start!)

I make sure that our eyes connect when I am praising him or inviting him to do or get something he enjoys.  When he gets a biscuit, he has to look me in the eyes.

And in reverse, if I want my dog to stop something, I give him a very stern look and I say “stop”. (My eyes are squinting, not inviting, when I’m disappointed.)  I will not let him get the enjoyment of seeing my eyes and my smile when he is not behaving well.

When my dog goes to the bathroom in the right place, I get his eyes looking at me, I smile, and I say “Good Sam”.   When he wants to get on the couch, which I don’t permit, I say “no” with a frown and minimal eye contact.  I try to always get myself in position for him to see my face when I am giving direction.

This training technique might sound a little bit strange if you haven’t ever used it before, but I will give you some examples of how my dogs have reacted to this type of training.

  • Sam typically went to work with me every day.  But once in a while, I couldn’t take him.  He would be sitting in my bedroom waiting for me to finish dressing, and I’d shake my head back and forth and say, “No, you can’t go today.”  Sam look at me intensely and I would shake my head “no” again.  When he realized he couldn’t go, he would turn his face away from me and very purposely not look at me the rest of the time before I left.  I’d say his name, and he would look away.  He had learned: no eye contact for unpleasant events.  I credit Sam for really teaching me about dog-to-mom eye contact.  Not only did he learn my actions, he mimicked them back to me.
  • Annie also went to work with me every day.  If I would tell her that she had to stay home, she would stomp her feet and run in front of me to try to force me to look at her eyes.  Her eyes were as big as saucers reaching out to me; she was determined to get me to connect with her.  I have to admit, with that desperate stare, I often gave in and took her with me.  She got the positive reinforcement from eye contact that she had learned from me.  Whoops.  Who’s the teacher here?
  • Chuck and I just spoke through our eyes without words.  He was in the car barking one day while I was standing in line at the ice cream stand.  I just looked sternly at him without saying a word and he laid down on the seat.  (My mother used to look at me that way, and I knew to straighten up right away!  Maybe she taught me this before I thought to teach my dogs about “that look”.)

I believe that eye and facial training is the first step in training your dog.  It has multiple benefits!

  • You and your dog connect through a proven technique that dogs use with humans.
  • You are more deliberate, and careful, in your training, and you take that extra second to really connect.
  • When you are conscious of training, you are more consistent in your message to your dog.
  • Your dog has a better understanding of the yes and no that you want from him.
  • You and your dog … and everyone around you … have much happier lives together.

In closing, I can’t help but to add this last tip.  When you are first training your dog, LESS is MORE when it comes to WORDS.  The fewer words you use, the better your dog will understand you.

Example #1:  “Fred, drop my shoe. Get that out of your mouth. No, Fred, no. Put it down right now or no treatsfor you.  Fred, stop chewing that. Stop. Give it to me.  Fred, you’re a bad dog.”  

37 words and poor Fred barely has a clue to what you want even if you are pulling your shoe out of his teeth.

Example #2:  “No.”  

You are face-to-face with Fred – without eye contract.  And you take it away with a stern look on your face and not sharing your eyes with him.  Fred is not confused by this.

Less is More.  Fred can only understand a word or two at a time.

WARNING: This article is about TRAINING a dog. This assumes you have some level of a relationship with this dog. It is not where you start with a dog you don’t know. “In their wolf ancestors, staring is considered threatening and rude. Some dogs still retain that attitude. That’s why you should never stare down strange dogs or hold dogs still to stare into their eyes. If a dog gives you a hard stare, with unblinking eyes and a stiff posture, back away and don’t make eye contact.” – American Kennel Club website

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