Bad dog training advice: the staring game
This longheld myth about dog training does have its roots in canine behavior, but like many training tactics, it's been distorted into something harmful to the dog-human relationship.
Here's where it comes from — prolonged eye contact between two dogs is like a stand-off, a threat of aggression to come. The dog who looks away first is the submissive one, the dog who wins the staring contest is the dominant one. If neither dog looks away, a physical dogfight ensues.
Over the years, dog trainers who operate on the dominance model have used this tactic, reasoning that the dog must be taught it is submissive to humans and this is just one tool used to achieve that end.
What you're really doing, however, is teaching the dog that this canine behavior of not making eye contact except to give the threat of aggression applies to humans as well. This has dangerous implications.
The best-case scenario is that you wind up with a mildly fearful dog who does not make prolonged eye contact with humans. The next-best-case scenario is that you wind up with an extremely fearful dog who does not make prolonged eye contact with humans. The worst-case scenario is that you wind up with a dog who reacts aggressively any time a human makes eye contact with him.
Either way, you are teaching the dog that the same dog rules about eye contact apply to his/her interactions with humans, and meanwhile, humans are exactly the opposite. Our inherent body language, language we are hardly conscious of, moves us to make eye contact with other living beings. So why not teach your dog that when dealing with humans, eye contact is a good thing?
Dogs are entirely capable of this. Most of them do it with us anyhow — learning over the years that staring into our eyes with just the right precious look can earn them rewards like treats or attention. And they'll do it with their dog friends on occasion too, breaking the rules of doggie communication because they feel secure that no real threats will materialize.
So, instead of staring into your dog or puppy's eyes until he or she looks away, do just the opposite. Call your dog's name, hold a treat to your face and encourage eye contact. Gradually extend the amount of time your dog has to stare into your eyes until you give the reward. This teaches your dog to focus on you when you call his name, and teaches him that dog-human eye contact is a positive thing that earns the dog good things, like treats or attention or toys. This is the type of behavior you want in an adult dog, who will no doubt come across tons of people in his life who will want to make eye contact with him. And when they do, your dog will respond in a way to make you proud.
Worried that your dog will think he's the dominant one if you allow eye contact with humans? Don't be. Dogs spend their whole lives learning about how to communicate with humans. The more you can help them do so, the better off their life will be, and yours for it too.