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The Eyes Have it

Posted on 03/02/2015
Filed under: The Dog's View How Your Dog Thinks

fearful eyesThe saying that 'the eyes are the window to the soul' certainly applies when it comes to understanding all dogs, as they will always show the honest feeling that they are experiencing through their eyes. However, seeing dogs in everyday life, I am left wondering if some owners are actually looking at the signals their dogs are giving them or just interpreting those signals to suit themselves or worse still, ignoring those signals to please someone else.

 If ever, like me, you have had a dog that has suffered from a poorly tummy with the inevitable consequences that brings, while the physical effects are not very pleasant, the emotional devastation that comes with loss of control is clearly visible in the eyes of the patient and that is what I find more upsetting. After I have worked some magic with a mop and bucket, I always take special time to cuddle the invalid until the relaxed and soft expression returns to their face and they are once again certain that I am in no way disappointed with them, far from it, I am there for them at a distressing time.

 As well as distress, a dog's eyes clearly show confusion, anticipation, relaxation and joy; something that all of my fellow Dog Listeners know only too well. One of the most rewarding results of working with a family in the consultation situation is the moment that we know as 'soft eye', when the dog realises that we are really listening to it and bringing the peace that it so desperately needs. Eyes that appeared to be bulging at the beginning of the meeting become softer and softer, most often leading to the dog actually laying down and falling asleep, usually to the amazement and delight of the owners.

 It is completely natural for a dog to show some concern at any strange situation or when encountering a strange being and is why we must always give them time to work out how to respond to this new encounter and we do this by simply observing the eyes of a dog and recognising what they do, or do not, understand with this new situation.

 One of the most common things misunderstood by owners is when owners believe that their dog is okay with any situation it finds itself in, from being left tied up outside of a shop to finding themselves amongst a group of unfamiliar dogs and owners, all in an unfamiliar place.

 Earlier this week I saw a gorgeous staffie full stretch on a tethered collar and lead, its front legs were off the ground and, with bulging eyes, it was making a sound that was the equivalent of a scream and if we understand that a dog can be: fearful for the safety of the owner, as happens with a dog that has been (inadvertently) given the role of leader, distressed at being deprived of the ability to locate their family, or escape the potential danger around them, if we understand what we are looking at, their eyes show the misery.

 One obvious signal of distress is when a dog looks away from someone, just as I saw a little dog do only the other day. The small dog was in the arms of a lady and apart from it constantly looking around, it did seem to be just coping, until a lady approached and, raising her outstretched hand, failed to notice that the little dog immediately turned its head away to avoid making any eye contact with her. The lady then said 'Oh now don't be silly I only want to say hello'. She seemed oblivious to the pressure that she was putting on the dog and even when the little dog tried to climb over the shoulder of the owner, failed to appreciate what was happening, responding to the dog’s behaviour by saying that the dog was 'not being very friendly', failing to recognise that she had been the cause of the dog’s distress. 

Even sadder was the response of the owner who said 'sorry' to the insistent lady, who then criticised the owner for 'not having socialised the dog enough' (her words), making sure that anyone passing was aware of her dissatisfaction. I wondered what she would have said to a parent of a child who did not respond in an 'affectionate' manner to her. 

While, with a dog that we know very well, we can use a “soft” look to invite it to come in for affection, that doesn’t apply to dogs we don’t know and we should never look a strange dog in the eye; it just places unnecessary pressure on the animal; a pressure that is clearly shown in its eyes. 

Dogs should be easy to read for most of us because, unlike humans, dogs don’t have the guile to lie with their expressions, however, we have to take notice of what we actually see, not what we wish to see, and respond to the dog’s needs, not ours. 

Jan Fennell    03-02-2015