LOOK FOR THE LOOK AWAY. A head turn, or "look away" can be an important signal to help you detect when your dog is uncomfortable, or help your dog communicate with other dogs. It's subtle, it's simple, and it says a lot.
NON-THREATENING INTENT: You know that moment when you're walking through the grocery store, you turn down an aisle and come face-to-face with another shopper? What do you do? Do you:
A) Lock eyes with the stranger, staring intently at them while you pass by?
B) Give them a big, friendly smile and engage them in a delightful conversation about the weather?
C) Turn and look at the rows of canned vegetables to your right?
If your answer was "A," please see the school counselor after class.
However, most of you probably answered "C." You might give a small smile (a "submissive grin" if you will...), then avert your gaze, scanning the garbanzo beans as you pass.
This is a look away. You are communicating that you are not a threat and that you're not interested in engaging with that person. You're very busy with lots of decisions to make about garbanzo beans.
DISENGAGEMENT: Uh-oh. You're not in the store, you're at the office. And who is around the corner, but the drama queen of the office who is just DYING to tell you about her fight with her boyfriend. As she launches into her story, you glance at your watch (do people wear watches anymore?), your phone, the papers in your arms, anything to communicate that you are really busy and need to go.
I've heard people say that their dog "blows them off" when they are giving their dog a cue. If the dog knows the cue and has a long history of that behavior being rewarding, there is no reason for a dog to not comply. Most of the time, the "blow off" is in the form of a look away.
Example: A client had been telling her dog to sit, and followed the cue by pressing on the dog's hindquarters. The dog then associated "Sit" with "push on my rear," which made him uncomfortable (and, we found out later, caused him pain). So, each time she said "Sit," the dog would look away. He was trying to disengage from an interaction that made him uncomfortable.
AVOIDANCE: Same co-worker, but now you immediately look at a stack of paperwork before she can even engage you, communicating that you are clearly too busy to be disturbed.
Now, you want your dog to meet your friend's newly adopted adolescent retriever, who is bouncing, straining, and choking at the end of the leash in her excitement. Your dog appears not to see the dog at all, looking far off in the distance.
Your dog is communicating his wish to avoid that dog's rude behavior, much as you would try to avoid the "friendly" drunkard who keeps asking you to high-five everything he says.
Here's why it's so important: if this signal is ignored, your dog may feel the need to escalate to more obvious signals, like growling, snarling, or snapping.
Dogs use the look away to communicate different things, depending on the situation. But, it is usually a sign that your dog is feeling the need to communicate that they are not a threat or that they would rather not engage. Either way, it's always worth noting.
Just the other day, I was at a client's house, petting one dog when her sister started to approach. The first dog turned and stared at her sister, who immediately did a very obvious head turn, avoiding eye contact. It was actually the sister's head turn that told me something was going on between the two dogs.
The communication was very clear. "The Treat Lady is mine. Don't even think about coming over." To which her sister responded, "Hey, that's cool. I wouldn't even think about it. You can have all the treats you want, I'm just over here minding my own business."
Had the sister not looked away, it could have resulted in a fight. Had I insisted the sister approach, it could have resulted in a fight.
It was a classic resource guarding scenario that was diffused with a simple turn of the head.
Here's a very good example of how the look away is used to prevent tension from building (don't worry, the dogs do not start fighting).
Sometimes, dogs seem like their attention is all over the place. But their behavior might not be as random as it appears. Watch carefully!
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