Look Me In The Eye…
I sat down at my desk this morning to write my blog. I stared at the screen while waiting for the inspiration from my iTunes to make it to my fingers when a clanging tag caught my attention. I turned to see one of my dogs – my English pointer, Que. He was sitting in his clumsy way in my doorway looking directly at me. I smiled, he stretched his lips, opened his mouth and softened his eyes. His tail wagged, and then his entire body. He then collapsed down, lolling on his back, and began to snooze. And there was my blog!
“Don’t stare at the dog!” What we had thought was sage advice is advice we should not always follow… Dogs use their eyes and facial expression to communicate lots of things – and look to others’ eyes for signals of social interaction. Take my interaction with Que. He looked directly at my face – in fact, our eyes locked. I then smiled – a long-lipped, teeth-covered smile, which in turn made my eyes squint (which is unfortunate, as almost every headshot I have ever taken shows a squinty eyed gal…). My squint indicated “no fight” to him, as did my long-lipped smile. If I were to be anthropomorphic (OK, my animal behavior and science mentors, you can turn the other way now…), I would say that the interaction was:
Me: “Hello there, Que… I love you.”
Que: “Hello back, Mom… Love you, too… tired… love…you…”
While interactions like this can make for some great memories and conversations in the home, they can really make a difference in the shelter. Taking a shelter tour with me can be a lengthy experience, as I like to stop at each kennel run, turn my body to the side, squint my eyes, smile and look right at the dog in the run. By communicating “no fight” in this way, we can often quickly soften a dog with this simple interaction. For the confused dog who has just entered the shelter, or the fearful guy who has yet to settle in, and even those showing overt aggression – looking them in the eye as I describe can make a significant impact.
The eyes and face in general can give us a wealth of information about a dog’s emotional state. There are certainly times where breaking a stare by looking away can be a lifesaver (for both you and the dog), and times where a soft look can save a life, too. Our SAFER® video glossary of terms shows several eye and lip behaviors that are very useful. So squint and smile at some of the pups in your care. Give it a try – and tell me what you think!