Connection: the relationship of a person, thing or behavior to something or someone else.
Connection is an all the rage buzz word in the current world of dog training. In years past the word instead was “Attention”.
Attention: the act of directing the mind to listen, see or understand; notice.
And somehow in the world of dog training both connection and attention have become one and the same with eye contact.
Eye contact: the act of looking in the eyes of another person as the person looks at you.
Lately I’ve listened to a number of webinars, podcasts and quotes from dog training professionals, handlers, competitors, trainers all about how eye contact is critical to connecting with our dogs. The undertone being if you don’t train it, if you don’t have it, if you can’t do it, you’re doing things wrong and your relationship with your dog, training and competitive goals will suffer.
Here to tell, you that’s a load of baloney.
Is eye contact one means of connecting with our dogs? Sure. Maybe. Depends. On the dog. On the person.
Is eye contact one means of ensuring we have the attention of our dogs? Sure. Maybe. Depends. On the dog. On the person.
I’ve worked with many dogs over the years who I wouldn’t want to ever teach to purposefully make eye contact with humans with. Why? Because the fine line of that dog shifting into viewing such as a threat, challenge or escalation is too great. Instead we worked to consciously teach those dogs when a person looks at you, look away! Otherwise you had approximately .2 seconds before the dog went, “You lookin’ at me?! YOU LOOKIN’ AT ME!!??!” and all manner of behaviors you don’t want a dog practicing would come out like a rain storm. Or approximately .2 seconds before the dog went, “You’re looking at me!!!!! Wheeee!!! Let’s get this party started!!” And all manner of frantic break your or their body excitement ensued. Reinforcing those dogs instead to look away when looked at helped them stay sub threshold, and access other safer coping skills. For some of those dogs, eventually once they trusted their ability to access safer coping skills and that those skills would work to meet their needs, we were then able to condition that eye contact can be made with humans without their world falling apart, but some of those dogs we never did.
I’ve worked with dogs over the years who could auto pilot anything. They could be staring at their handler’s face and eyes making what seemed to be gorgeous attention and yet still their brains were elsewhere. Was it eye contact? Yes, sure. Was it attention on the person they were looking at? No. Was it connection? Well, sure, connected to what they wanted to think about but not with their handler!
I’ve worked with handlers over the years for whom eye contact wasn’t an option. Myself included! Years ago when it was drilled into me that eye contact with our dogs was a requirement, I trained it, but it was never easy or comfortable for me. And once I trained it to ‘satisfaction’ quite frankly I found I then rarely if ever used it in real life or actual training. After a time, I realized I’d stopped teaching an eye contact with humans cue to my dogs at all, (I do though often teach dogs to look at certain other things on cue, like ‘watch where the ball is being thrown so you can find it’, or ‘look forward in the direction my foot or hand is pointing so you know which direction I want you to run when I release you from your start line stay’) and I started to think about why. Realizing, how unnecessary to my training and relationship with my dogs eye contact really is. So I stopped actively teaching it in my lessons or classes, unless a client specifically asked for instruction on it, and noticed the lack of active teaching of eye contact between dog and handler didn’t cause any obvious detriments. Connection and attention between dog and handler could still be clearly gained without eye contact.
Is eye contact a means for many folks and dogs to interact with each other? Is it a part of many folks routines when training or competing with their dogs? Sure. But it isn’t the be all and end all. It doesn’t have to be a component of a solid, healthy connected relationship or moment with our dogs.
Let’s go back to that definition of connection, shall we? “the relationship of a person, thing or behavior to something or someone else.” and attention: “the act of directing the mind to listen, see or understand.” Seeing is just one of many means of defining attention. And connection makes no mention at all about the eyes or sight.
The keys of connecting with our dogs, of attending to our dogs are about understanding and relating. About both parties, dog and human, building a relationship where each is willing to notice the other and direct the mind to understand.
So, just here to say, if you’re striving to build a connected, attentive relationship and training moment with your dog, but eye contact isn’t your or your dog’s thing for whatever reason? It’s ok. You’re not doing it wrong. Your team isn’t lacking some huge key “if you can’t do this you might as well quit” eye contact element. It’ll be ok. There are many other ways to connect, be, attend to our working and personal relationships with our dogs, and for our dogs to connect, be and attend to us. Eyes not required.