Before we get into the mechanics of the exercise, it’s important to understand how dogs experience the world. Clearly any given dog will have a somewhat different response to any number of different stimuli. However on the most basic, fundamental level there are a few simple principles at work, and they work all the time with all dogs, no matter the breed type or past history of abuse, etc. And those principles are based simply on how a dog reacts to shifts in energy, whether they’re brought about by changes in the environment or in the dog’s own internal energy. To a dog, energy, no matter how weak or strong, comes in the form of simple emotions that are most often felt as either a feeling of attraction to something or a resistance to it, or a combination of the two. And just as in electricity, or any other type of energy for that matter, a dog’s natural form of energy, that of simple emotions, will tend to flow more freely toward an attractor while a resistor is something which dampers the level of energy by presenting some form of opposition to its ability to flow freely. One of our main goals in dog training is to stimulate a dog’s energy to flow toward us, not away. In other words, we want a dog to feel highly attracted to us emotionally.
With me so far?
To a dog one of the primary natural attractors is anything that stimulates his predatory emotions such as a squirrel, a toy, another dog he likes to play with, a human who plays fetch or tug with him (or who just feeds him), or even a leaf caught in a breeze.
The other polarity—that of resistance—is based on the need to be safe from harm, to avoid danger. In the wild a wolf has no natural predators except for—oddly enough—the same animals he and his pack members prey upon: elk, deer, moose, etc. They’re not really predators, of course; they’re not going to kill and eat the wolf. However, the wolf doesn’t know that. All he knows (or I should say feels) is that his energy, which was flowing so pleasurably toward an objective—involving a deep-rooted urge to bite what's moving away from him—has now been reversed. The moose is no longer an attractor but a resistor. In other words, when a wolf is chasing a moose he’s in predatory mode—full of strong feelings of attraction. If the moose turns and stands his ground, the wolf stops dead in his tracks. And the primary trigger point for his feelings of resistance at that moment is the level of gaze that the moose has, which is exaggerated by his big antlers. In essence, the wolf is stopped dead in his tracks by nothing but the moose’s eyes. And it doesn’t matter in the slightest if you replace the word wolf with proto-wolf, or proto-dog, or pre-doglike-canid, or whatever. The energetic essence of the situation even works with cat and mice.
When a puppy comes into the world he has to have some remnants of those wild, wolflike feelings within him; they’re part of his survival repertoire, what’s enabled the species to survive for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. And one of a pup’s first emotional or energetic reactions to a vertical human being, with eyes located way up high in a very big head, is that of unconscious resistance. (Remember this is all unconscious; the puppy doesn’t know what he’s feeling, he just feels it and reacts in a knee-jerk manner.) And as humans when we sense a pup’s “shyness,” what do we usually do? We come down to his level, breaking the tension and attempting to overcome his feelings of resistance toward us. Even a pup who is very friendly, showing no hesitation about coming toward us is in all likelihood experiencing strong feelings of resistance mixed with attraction (that’s why his tail wags or he gets wiggly, he has two opposing emotions working together in his body). And if you think about, even when the wolf is stopped dead in his tracks by the eyes of the moose (or the cat by the mouse) he still has a strong feeling of attraction to that moose.
The “Eyes!” exercise has the effect of increasing your dog’s social attraction toward you, reducing his natural resistance, and has the added side-effect of grounding your dog’s energy whenever it starts to spin out of control. This makes it a great tool for curbing leash aggression, an overeager interest in squirrels, or even for training the recall.
Before we get started, remember, dogs respond to us on an unconscious level either as pack members (when we hang out at home), potential prey (when we play with them), and potential predators (because our level of gaze is the same as that of wolf’s only natural enemies). In the wild, eye contact can spell the difference between life and death. We want to make our dogs’ eye contact with us a solution to their problems, not a cause for concern or resistance to obeying us. We want to reduce resistance and amp up our attraction to them. And one way we can do that is by making our eye contact with our dogs a source of pleasure and satisfaction.
So here’s how we do the “Eyes!” exercise (as with most exercises where you’re using food, I personally wouldn’t do this with a dog who has food aggression, or whom I don’t already know pretty well):
Have your dog seated in front of you. Pet and praise him, holding the leash about 2-3 inches away from the collar. The leash is not there for the purpose of restraining the dog, or to keep him from doing anything he wants to. It’s basically just there to give him a feeling of being under control, and as a safety measure in case the dog gets too frustrated by the exercise (yes, the exercise will be frustrating initially). The reason you want to hold the leash so close to the collar is so that you can use that hand to pet him or scratch his neck if he gets too nervous.
Start feeding him some tasty treats. Then show him a treat, but hold it deliberately between your thumb and forefinger so that when he looks at it he’s also seeing a large negative space, almost like an eye. It’s not an eye, of course, but he’ll feel an unconscious attraction to that space and a mild nervousness, almost as if it were the eye of a predator.
Remember, this is an emotional reaction, not a conscious one. For instance, the workers at rubber plantations in Malaysia wear masks on the backs of their heads to prevent tigers from attacking them. And it works. But it doesn’t work because the tigers “think” the workers can see them. That would require a rudimentary theory of mind and even chimps don’t have that ability (or I should say they probably don’t—the jury is still out). So the tigers aren’t holding themselves back from attacking the workers because the they believe there are actual eyes staring at them from the back of the workers’ heads; they respond on a purely visceral, unconscious level to that negative space and its location in the general shape of the head. It’s something that’s embedded deep into the DNA of all predators and prey animals alike. The same principle applies to how your dog views that space between your thumb and forefinger. (I know this all sounds a little crazy, but you’ll see exactly what I mean once you’ve done it.)
After you’ve fed the dog a few treats, and formed your little make-believe eye with your thumb and forefinger, hold your arm out to the side, so that it and your torso are forming a right angle, and your hand is at the same level as your eyes. That level of “gaze” is very important.
Praise him a little, and if he shows nervousness, pet him a little. Then swoop the treat toward him, ending up 3-4 inches away. Keep that “eye” made by your thumb and forefinger visible to him the whole time. (If he tries to grab it before you swoop it toward him either swoop it further away or get him back into position with the leash, etc.)
If he tries to grab the treat when you swoop it close to him (which he probably will), swoop your arm back to its original, right-angle position, at the same level as your eyes. Keep repeating this – swoop it down to about 3-4 inches from the dog’s snout, then swoop it back up (but only if he makes an attempt to grab it). Then, when you swoop the treat toward him and you see that the dog is holding still or pull back, either physically or emotionally, hold it there, still and steady, about 3 inches from the dog’s snout. If he moves toward it again, swoop it back up.
At some point he’ll be staring at the treat while you’re holding it near him, not knowing how to get it, not knowing what you want him to do. And then suddenly, and perhaps very briefly, his eyes will dart over to yours. It’s as if he’s looking to you to help him solve this problem. The instant he looks at you immediately put the treat right into his mouth and praise him. You’ve not only given him the answer to his problem, as far as he’s concerned you are the answer.
Repeat a few more times until you’re able to read his facial expressions so that you can pretty much predict when his eyes are going to dart away from the treat and lock onto yours instead. Then your timing for giving him the treat will be more exact, and you can start adding the word “Eyes,” as you give him the treat. Next, do it with your non-dominant hand, depending on whether you’re right or left-handed, so he’ll understand this is only about making eye contact, not about which side the treat is coming from.
Next, increase the amount of time he’s able to hold your gaze before you give him the treat. Then you can start putting the treat closer and closer to his mouth, working up to the point where you’re actually dancing it on his nose, or pressing it against his upper lip, and he still won’t try to take it; he’ll keep looking you in the eyes instead.
Once he’s got that down, you can give him the “Eyes” command as a way of solving all sorts of other problems. Stand with him at the front door, holding the door slightly open. Say “Eyes,” and when he looks up at you, instantly open the door wide and let him go through. You can do the same thing at the dog run. You can also use it as part of a game of fetch. Hold a tennis ball in the “eye” position, give your dog the “eyes” command, and when he makes eye contact, immediately throw the ball for him to chase.
Once you have all that under your collective belts, if you have a leash-aggressive dog, whenever he gets worked up about seeing other dogs on his walks, say “Eyes,” and he’ll look at you instead. The same for dogs who become obsessed with seeing squirrels in the park. With sme dogs I like to play a game where I put the dog in a down/stay then toss a ball or treat in front of her. I wait for her to look away from the object, look me in the eyes, and then I say, “Okay! Get it!”