Friday, February 17, 2012

More on eye contact and dogs

Buy it: Inside of Dog by Alexandra Horowitz
"There is a final, seemingly minor difference between (wolves and dogs)," writes the insightful Alexandra Horowitz in her New York Times Bestseller Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know.
That difference is eye contact.
Wolves avoid it, as I talked about in my last post, Bad dog training advice: the staring game.
Dogs don't.
In my last post, I also mentioned how a stare between two dogs signifies a threat of aggression. Don't be confused; this is true.
"Though they have inherited some aversion to staring too long at eyes, dogs seem predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance," Horowitz writes.
The point I want to make is that dogs should want to read our faces and look into our eyes. This is a huge part of what makes a dog a dog and not a wolf.
Horowitz writes about how dogs became domesticated over a span of thousands of years. An early version of the dogs we know today may have had a better chance at building a bond with humans — and getting benefits, like food — if it was able to make a connection with humans. And for us, meaningful eye contact is a huge bond builder.
This again drives home the point that a dominance-based theory of training — a theory mostly rooted in the belief that we should treat our dogs as though they were wolves — is worthless.
Our dogs are not wolves.
Anyone wanting to learn more about domestication should check out the breeding experiment on silver foxes that has been taking place for decades now in Russia. The gist of the experiment is that when selecting for traits that make a dog more compatible to living with humans, tons of physical changes take place.
Let's say it again in a point-blank phrase: When selecting for behavioral traits, physical changes follow suit.
And one more time on this: Our dogs are not wolves.
We have no good reason to try to teach a dog that making eye contact with humans is a bad thing. It's far too easy to teach a dog this, given its inherited aversion to long stares, goes against what thousands of years of domestication have improved, and has only negative consequences to both the human and dog in the relationship.

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