Last month I briefly touched on Konrad Lorenz’s “Man Meets Dog” with specific reference to his observations concerning the effect of staring at an animal. For those in- volved in obedience training these observations are perhaps among the most useful and, when applied, frequently produce immediate results. Lorenz notes that the structure of animals’ eyes is such that for them, as distinguished from man, focusing or seeing clearly is a strain. As a result, animals rely almost exclusively on peripheral vision. The immediate effect of this condition is explained by Lorenz as follows: “Among themselves, animals only look at each other fixedly when they intend to take drastic measures or are afraid of each other. Consequently, they conceive a prolonged fixed gaze as being something hostile and threatening and rate it in man as the expression of extreme malevolence.” He therefore advises that “anyone who wishes to win the confidence of a shy cat, a nervous dog or any other similar being should make it a rule never to face him and stare straight at him like a hungry lion, but to look beyond him, only letting the eye rest on as if it were by accident and for a very short time. Sound advice, and particularly for the instructor who has to handle an aggressive or frightened dog.
It is also sound advice for the trainer, and the lesson to be learned from it comes up in a variety of situations. For example, a handler was overheard to complain about the recall of his dog – it was slow and the dog appeared cowed. Upon observing the handler it was pointed out to him that he was glowering at the dog while it was coming. He was told to look beyond the dog at some point on the horizon. The transformation in the dog was startling – on the very next recall he came quickly and without any signs of cowering. Similarly, many trainers have difficulty in getting their dogs to sit straight in front of them and the harder they try the worse it seems to get. Frequently this problem is caused by the handler – in his effort to get the dog to sit straight he stares at him, which in turn causes the dog to shift to avoid the stare. The same thing often happens with the automatic sit at heel – as the handler intently peers at the dog to make sure he sits straight, the dog swivels. The stays may also be affected. Recently I had occasion to observe a handler staring at his dog during the sit-stay. The dog became increasingly uncomfortable and fidgety. The harder the handler stared, the more uncomfortable the dog became until it finally broke.
Clearly not all dogs will react to a fixed stare to the same degree, but none of them appear to be completely immune to it. The most common defense mechanism against it is for the dog to turn his head. At that point it looks like he is not paying attention. Again, the harder the handler tries to hold the dog’s attention by staring at him the worse it gets. It would seem, therefore, that the best way to get and hold that attentive look all of us aim for is to look as little as possible at the dog and under no circumstances to stare or glower at him.