Warm look of dogs
There is another feature of the eyes, but it is quite difficult to describe. Anyone who has dealt with aggressive dogs knows that at some point their gaze becomes „hard”. My clients often say that the eyes of their dogs are „cold” a moment before the attack. This change of expression does not consist either in changing the size of the pupil or the hue of the iris, but for some reason the eyes take on „hardiness”, like cold steel. It reminds a bit of „bad look”, as we sometimes see in humans. Friendly and calm dogs have a soft, almost churlish look, similar to that of lovers and children. Those that can do harm cast cold glances that we generally attribute to sophisticated killers. You may never have seen eyes like this, or if you’re lucky, you may never see them.
When I took up dog training seriously, for a while I thought I was a poor observer, because I didn’t observe anything like that. Until finally, one day. I bent down to pick up the toy the dog wanted to grab, and the dog quickly turned his head in my direction. I saw his eyes, cold as a February morning in Wisconsin, literally piercing me through. Before my brain could send me the information „You better be careful!”, other organs of my body reacted: a sudden burst of adrenaline made my heart stop for a moment, only to resume its work with redoubled speed and force. This is a good example of how selectively and precisely the brain works – out of the various signals the dog gave you, it unerringly chose the most important one, namely „cold” or „hard” look.
I still remember what it was like, although nothing else remains from this incident in my memory. It would be good to know what kind of change actually causes that scary look, but so far we can only guess. Jeff Baylis, my professor in postgraduate courses, came up with the hypothesis that seems most likely to me. It is based on the observation that the eyes of mammals constantly move forward and backward, with movements so slight and yet so rapid that they cannot be noticed. With these movements, the eyes send more information to the brain allowing for a more precise and spatial evaluation of the image being viewed.
Apparently this is important, because otherwise the body would not waste energy on unnecessary activity. Rarely do eye movements become strong enough to be noticed – This happens, for example, during an epileptic seizure or in the case of other brain disorders and is called nystagmus.
It is also possible that these movements stop when the dominant emotion becomes, in both dogs and humans, pure anger. This would agree with the confirmed observation that a highly stimulated brain stops its activity for a brief moment, only to immediately explode with a veritable explosion of electrical and chemical signals.
So it is plausible that other organs of the body stop working for a few microseconds before reacting according to the anger felt. No matter what it’s caused in your dog „hard” look, it’s not worth wasting time learning to recognize it. You don’t have to – When you come into contact with it, your body will alert you faster than you can consciously do. And don’t ignore that alarm, or you could find yourself in real danger.
I remember well how, at the beginning of my career as a behavioral counselor, I had to ask a more experienced colleague for help. John Wright had worked in this field for several years and had dealt with aggressive dogs many times. I highly valued his advice. This time, however, I didn’t need advice on what to do – I was simply very afraid of my patient, who was a large poodle. Like most novices, I was confident that my knowledge and dedication to my job would ensure that there would never be a time when I would be afraid of a dog brought to me. But this is what happened – As the poodle crept closer and closer to my face with a look in which there was not a trace of kindness, my body and brain were sending me a clear message: „You have reason to be afraid!”.
And I was afraid, perceiving this fear as my utter defeat. „How can I consider myself a behavioral counselor if I was scared of the dog?!” – I asked. „Worse if you weren’t scared” – John answered calmly. „That dog was clearly threatening you, and your body picked up the signal correctly. When you are working with your dog, listen to what your body is telling you, because your body is the source of all the important information”. And he was right – Now, with my seventeen years of experience, I know full well that that dog with the cold eyes wasn’t just scaring me; he really wanted to do me harm. And on that case I learned to listen to my body and believe it.
The expression of a dog’s eyes may be one of the most difficult signals to describe in words, but both dog behavior specialists and trainers agree that it is the key to assessing a dog’s emotions. Human psychologists claim that we read anger and fear primarily from the eyes, and from the lips – contentment or happiness. A warning frown from a dog is a clue to any observer, but the expression of pure anger in his eyes cannot be compared to anything else. If you are unlucky enough to come across a dog who turns his head to look you straight in the eye and his eyes are cold and still, the best thing you can do is try to relieve the tension quickly by saying something in a calm, gentle voice, such as „Walking” (although this may seem a bit pointless).
A direct look in the eyes is a signal in a dog that he will not hesitate to attack, in which his chances are usually better than yours. I don’t mean that you capitulate to every dog, especially your own, whenever he looks at you sharply, defending his toy or bone, or when you want him off the couch. But such domestic problems are best prevented, or at least solved, by means other than open confrontation. When the blood is thickening in your veins at the sight of a dog’s stare, listen to what your body is telling you to do, stop what you were just doing with the dog, and defuse the situation somehow. And then. look for a competent specialist who will be able to help you.