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Eye contact with dogs

  1. May 23, 2009 #1


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    I was wondering about the following. A friend (biologist) once told me that looking a cat in the eyes shows aggression, whereas making eye contact with a dog creates a kind of connection or bond. However, a quick Google search seems to indicate that also in canines, direct eye contact is seen as provocative (something with ancestry, etc) although the opinions whether looking dogs in the eyes is friendly or not seem to be about 50/50.
    So who's right here?

    PS I'm really talking about, for example, meeting a friend's dog or passing someone with a dog on the street; as opposed to "I always look my own dog in the eyes and I feel a deep connection".
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  3. May 23, 2009 #2
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  4. May 23, 2009 #3
    It's sort of an authoritative thing. If you look the average dog in the eyes it will most likely look away after a short period if not right away. I think you need to create the bond with the dog for it not to be taken as domineering. Friendlier human oriented dogs (mostly toydogs/lapdogs) are less likely to take it as aggressive unless it is combined with aggressive body language and tone of voice.
    Generally speaking you are supposed to take a domineering posture with a dog to make sure that it does not walk all over you. If a mean dog sees you as weak it is more likely to attack you and when you are not looking is, of course, the best time. At the same time if you see a dangerous dog that you are seriously concerned about and do not believe you can fend it off physically it may be best to avoid doing anything that might piss it off.

    Edit: By the way this is just experience talking. I have been around alot of animals and worked for a few months at a veterinary hospital and that is all the authority I have on the matter.
  5. May 23, 2009 #4


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    SA is right. With dogs, making eye contact is a dominant behavior, while submission is signalled by looking away (among other things). There's a lot more to a dog's posture and expressions that indicates their "mood," so you do want to look at them and they will look at you for these cues too.

    If confronted with an aggressive dog, do NOT break eye contact. Turning and running signals to them that you're prey that they can chase. This is why you're told you look them in the eyes and back away slowly (this really only works to some extent, though...such as if the aggression is because the dog is defending a territory you've wandered into, and if you can allay that aggression by slowly backing out of that territory). Of course, the other reason to maintain eye contact is so you know what the dog is doing and can possibly get into a protective posture if you see them lunge for you.
  6. May 23, 2009 #5
    Are you saying that I should never look my cat in the eyes?
  7. May 23, 2009 #6
    Isn't this just a general rule for all wild animals?

    I don't the one this applies to dogs though.
  8. May 23, 2009 #7
    This part I wasn't sure about. Keeping eye contact will generally keep a mean dog at bay. But what about a seriously dangerous and crazed dog that may aswell attack you as look at you? I found that the fractals at the vet often got more angry if you looked them in the eye. So I was thinking maybe not looking them in the eye, while keeping them in your vision and not turning your back, may be better than looking them in the eye? They were in cages so couldn't get at me anyway. Not exactly practical experience there.
  9. May 23, 2009 #8
    Yes, dogs will chase you. Haven't you even seen them do it just for fun before?
  10. May 23, 2009 #9


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    Over many years I have observed the fact that some people have a sense of fear that animals (especially dogs) pick up on, and an urge, or basic nature is triggered that causes the animal to become aggresive.

    An example that stands out most to me is, working around heavy equipment a lot, I come across the case of yellow jacket nest, where my moving around brings me in very close range and it seems that the only time they actually will fly off the nest and hit me is after I become aware that they are there.
  11. May 23, 2009 #10


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    I look my cat in the eyes on purpose to establish hierchy. He always looks away. On the other hand with my dad, let's just say animals think they are the boss around him, including my cat. My cat is highly obedient when it comes to my commands though. If I tell him to go somewhere or sit and wait for food, he will.
    Mew Mew acts like a dog. :biggrin:
  12. May 23, 2009 #11

    Ivan Seeking

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    I figured out long ago that cats interpret a stare with a long blink as "everything is okay". So I tried it on wild deer, and it worked! Apparently a long blink and then looking down tells a deer that I am no threat. They often blink back and go back to eating. If I am careful and they have gotten used to me, I can almost get within arm's length of them by doing this.

    However, I found that it has just the opposite effect on dogs. While visiting someone in California, I was standing on a balcony and looking down at their dogs who were in turn watching me. I gave them the distinctive long blink, and they went nuts!!! It surprised everyone including me. The owner came running out and asked what I had done to his dogs! :rofl:

    I later found that Integral's dog also perceived a long blink as being aggressive. Any time I did it she would growl at me and back up.
  13. May 23, 2009 #12


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    I've been meaning to ask this for a while, but never bothered opening a thread for it. This seems to be an appropriate place.
    How do animals even know what eyes are for? Considering that the ancient Greeks thought that the brain was merely a radiator to cool the blood, why does a critter know that your eyes are what you're looking at it with?
  14. May 23, 2009 #13


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    If you look a cat in the eyes and the cat already knows you well, it will likely turn away after a short gaze. I used to do my best to avoid cats, and would not even look at them in an attempt to make them feel unwelcome. That backfired big-time. Cats interpret an indifferent attitude (looking away from them) as an invitation to cozy up. Many years ago, my neighbors had a pile of cats, and when I went to visit them (and tried to ignore the cats) a long-haired white female who was deaf as a post suddenly became "my" cat. Midnight somehow knew whenever I showed up and was all over me. Being deaf, I guess her main cues for interaction were visual. I didn't kick her out of my lap on the first visit and she apparently thought that was a sign that I really liked her. She'd jump into my lap and rub her head all over my chest, then curl up for a nap.
    Last edited: May 23, 2009
  15. May 23, 2009 #14


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    Yes. They are looking at you to bend you to their will. If you think staring them down means anything to them, then you are fooling yourself. (I think that's a myth started by cats themselves.) They look away when they get bored with toying with you, like when they realize you may be too dense to be hypnotized directly. They will just use other tactics to attack your weaknesses to get what they want.

    Beware the purr.
  16. May 23, 2009 #15
    That's definitely an interesting question.


    If this is correct it may be learned. Though humans in particular have a portion of the brain dedicated primarily to things like face recognition I have no idea if animals have similarly dedicated portions of the brain. Vision is also tricky and it may take an infant months just to get used to seeing in general, and their little noggins are still developing.
    I wonder if MIH has read anything on the topic. My friend who studies Cognitive Science focuses on optics, which is considered important to the field, so I'd imagine there must be some sort of study that has been done along this line. I just shot him off a text asking the question.
  17. May 23, 2009 #16


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    Cool. Thanks.
  18. May 23, 2009 #17
    And what are we supposed to do when a kitten has a rifle aimed at us? Seems to me that eye contact is exactly what it is looking for; marking a spot right between the eyes! Pow!
  19. May 23, 2009 #18
    He says that the findings in the study I quoted from wiki are "quite debated" (it is old) but otherwise does not seem to have much knowledge. Maybe we'll have to get MIH's attention.
  20. May 23, 2009 #19
    I have a couple of true stories that relates to this somewhat.

    My wife is an animal control officer. She is very brave with animals and generally has no trouble. However, one day a 120 lb German Shepherd at the shelter attacked her and viciously bit her arm. He was actually going for her throat be she blocked him with her arm. She never showed any fear and pushed him back while staring at him. He broke off the attack, fortunately. She then slowly back out of the dog play-cage and was safe. However, she then was so angry that she went back in the caged area, grabbed him by the collar and dragged him to his own cage. Personally I think this last step was a big mistake (and she agrees in hindsight), but it shows how important it is to not show fear and run away.

    Of course seconds after that she broke down crying realizing how close she came to dying and how injured she actually was. We took her to the hospital for many stiches. The odd thing is that despite the fact that I'm much bigger and stronger than my wife, she survived that situation, when I would have been ripped to pieces. The dog would have seen the fear in my eyes for sure. If I had a knife or bat or something that made me feel I had a fighting chance, it would be different, but being helpless, I would have been terrified.

    I had another relevant experience myself when I visited the shelter. A dog had puppies and several women were there playing with the puppies with the mother there. As I approached the group, the mother attacked me. I wasn't really scared because the dog was only about 50 pounds, but I didn't want to get bit, nor did I want to hurt the dog, so I ran away. The dog kept biting me with no force at all. My arm and leg had marks that never penetrated the skin. Obviously she just wanted to scare me away and not hurt me. However, I think that if I did not run away, those bites would have been real bites.

    I guess the rules of the game depend on the situation. (By the way, I have little knowledge of animals; so, I'm just relating real events I experienced. So don't put your life at risk based on my interpretations :smile: )
  21. May 24, 2009 #20


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    Write "All ur b3s4 R belOnG 2 Us" on a sign and staple it to the cat.
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