Gail Fisher's Dog Tracks: Learn how to read a dog's eyes before making contact

By GAIL FISHER May 13. 2017 6:13PM

"The eyes have it." Oh, OK - the saying is the "ayes" have it, but permit me this play on words because I want to talk about our dogs' eyes and learning to read them.

It's a common misconception to avoid making direct eye contact with dogs, but my dogs would think there's something wrong between us if we didn't look directly at each other. Larry looks directly into my eyes when he wants to go outside. Kochi does the same when he wants to eat-a frequent, clear communication. And they both enjoy direct eye contact communication at many other enjoyable times.

Dogs' eyes convey emotions, requests, feelings and warnings. Here's a rundown of the most common things you can observe in your dog's eyes.

Direct, open, soft eyes are expressive of affection, calmness, comfort. A wide-open, soft look is generally a confident, comfortable dog. There is no reason not to make eye contact with a dog with this expression.

Since dogs are students of body language and facial expression, when you make eye contact, your own expression is important, too. Our emotions are apparent to dogs, too. For instance, dogs learn to recognize our smiles, and when we're angry, our facial expressions convey that as well.

If your dog perceives a negative emotion from you, your dog's eyes may look squinty and partially closed to demonstrate appeasement. If your dog approaches you with this soft expression, it is to communicate pacification. If a dog is squinting and showing fear with reduced, fearful body posture, tail low, body lowered, the dog may perceive a threat, in which case it is best not to try to reach for and interact with the dog.

There is a direct eye contact to avoid, which is a hard, direct stare, combined with assertive body posture. The body language in this instance is standing tall on the dog's toes, the tail up and may or may not be wagging stiffly, and the dog is most likely standing still with little body movement. This combination of a hard stare with assertive posture is a dog that definitely does not want to be approached.

Sometimes you may see some white at the side of your dog's eyes. Referred to as "whale eye," this simply means that the dog is looking sideways at something or avoiding looking in the direction her muzzle is facing. A whale eye can be an expression of a pre-aggressive move. For example, a dog that is guarding a toy, bone, or other valued resource, may look whale eyed at a perceived threat to the dog's "ownership" of that item. In that instance, it may be a good idea to back off for the moment, consider your options, and even offer a trade for the protected resource, that is, offer a high value treat for the item.

While there is no reason not to look directly into your dog's eyes, it's important to understand that direct eye contact is not something that comes naturally to dogs. Most dogs learn that when we look into their eyes with a smile, good things will follow - praise, petting, a treat and the like. But dogs are individuals, and if a dog isn't comfortable with this eye contact, it doesn't mean the dog is being "sneaky" or feeling "guilty." She is simply a dog, and it is up to us to recognize this as a "doggy" thing.

Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog" and a dog behavior consultant, runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. To suggest a topic for this column, which appears every other Sunday, email or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103. Past columns on her website.


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