What Science Says…aint’ necessarily so. Eye contact with canines.

A recent scientific study determined why humans love dogs. They claimed it was that humans who make eye-contact have an edge. Apparently dogs tha169270413t gaze into a human’s eyes love them. To counter this finding I will tell you my rule, derived from eight years of humane and animal control work and more than 25 working as a behaviorist. I never make direct eye-contact with a dog I haven’t slept with.

To date, I have been bitten by a Chihuahua that “pinked” my little finger nail in a kennel at a shelter and a Wheaton Terrier that was so territorial that when released from his crate in another room, he came flying around the corner in full attack mode. I have two pin-point scars on my left hand from bites that didn’t go beyond a grip. It’s a great record considering the level of danger and the number of dogs I’ve handled and trained. However, nobody’s tooth-proof because the dog is a big part of the equation. Some of them do not behave like all other dogs. If you think you can handle every dog in the world you simply haven’t yet met the one that will make you bleed. With those two perspectives in mind I shall tell you what convinced me to create my rule and live by it almost perfectly.

After about five years of working shelters, I was hired as an animal control officer. I was excited to learn the way dogs behave in their natural environment – the streets of a city. While part of my job still required me to handle dangerous dogs in shelters, the street work was a whole different ball game. For one thing, the dog has a vested interest in protecting its territory. The problem is that the dog’s idea of territory has nothing to do with fences, gates, yards and house numbers. Much like an aerial photo, all the little lines showing boundaries are conspicuously absent. You can bump up against a dog’s territory by merely following it home – because you don’t know where home is until the dog suddenly turns around and loses its calm demeanor. Now we have a bigger problem. If you keep coming closer the dog starts getting dangerous. Each step makes you more of a target to be driven from the homestead. You are now officially on his turf and depending on the dog you may be in serious trouble. So, you are confronted by a dog while you were simply trying to capture a stray. Did I mention that while trailing one stray you may set off one you didn’t even see, merely because you passed in front of his house? Or accidentally walked around the corner of the house and got too close to a litter of puppies sacked out under a bush? Mom was willing to watch you closely until you got too close to her litter. Oops. So, with all that to consider, what do you need to stay safe and do your job?

Olfaction: Less than you thought.
If you had a dollar for every expert, television program and book that virtually drooled over a dog’s sense of smell you’d be rich. Humans obsess about a dog’s acute nose for a simple reason – our best noses are pretty much chump-change compared to the worst dog’s nose. We don’t have the slightest idea of what they smell and what it means to them. A dog can smell gold and be clueless that it could buy dog biscuits for a life-time. Sometimes cadaver search dogs alert to a septic system or hair in a drain. Once you get past a fascination for olfaction you realize something pretty important. If the air is still, 50% of the time you are downwind of a dog. They can’t smell you from as short a distance as ten feet. Even if the wind is moving a bit, it may be moving your scent away from the dog. I never worried about scent when I worked as an animal control officer. In a chain-link kennel the scent is so heavy and so mixed up that I doubt the best trained search dog would be able to decipher all that information with any reliability. I never experienced anything that would have been changed by guessing about a dog’s sense of smell. That is because scent is not a dog’s go-to sense. That is awarded to the sense most necessary to their survival – sight.

What They See and What they Don’t See. Dogs use their eyes and ears far more than their noses. It’s like pilots and radar. If it’s a clear day, a pilot trusts his or her eyes. Dogs use their noses to find things in a big wilderness. They use their eyes once they get close to the target – and they use their eyes magnificently to put teeth on the target. They also use their eyes to avoid being attacked, to escape and to threaten other animals. However, their eyes have limitations. For instance, they do not see well in bright sunlight if an object is ‘back lit.’ A dog can fail to recognize their owner if all they can see is a silhouette. Also, direct eye-contact is perceived as a challenge by almost all animals. The researchers got it wrong because they didn’t study dogs in the real world. Here’s an example…

The Really Real World:
One day while working as an animal control officer I was called to investigate a complaint of a female German Shepherd protecting her home and the rest of the cul-de-sac where she lived. When I got there, the dog was on her own front porch. Legally I can leave a notice of complaint but not remove the dog or cite the owner for dog at large. So, I had to leave a “door hanger” – a card with the complaint information that hangs from a door-knob. The problem was that the door knob was right above her head. It was also about 4:30 pm. I was supposed to get off work at 5:00 and the shelter was about 15 minutes away. If I took too much tim
germanshepherd003e to do my job I’d be late for supper – a chronic source of irritation to my wife. When I exited the van, the dog immediately started rumbling. She stood up and bared her teeth from about 30 feet away. So, I did my ‘safety dance’ – I stopped, turned side-ways and sat on the ground until she got comfortable again. To get to the door took 15 minutes. That screwed up my time-table. I hung the card on the door with great calm and immediately turned side-ways and sat down every time she got threatening. I was about half-way back to the van when a very stupid thought hit me.

“It can’t be as simple as eye-contact.” Hahahahahhaa.

So I broke my long-standing rule and tested the theory. I turned face-front to the dog while standing and made a perfect dagger stare at her eyes. SheProtection Jago attack exploded like a death-torpedo coming right for me. I spun sideways, dropped to the ground and studiously averted my gaze. She stopped just short of me, curved around my back and then looked upward, directly into my face. I looked in the opposite direction and froze. It took an eternal two minutes for her to come down from this provocation. Eventually she stiff-leggedly walked back to the porch but kept her eyes on me. It took an additional 15 minutes and three or four similar charges before I was back in the van.

Words to the Wise:
That was the last time I made direct eye contact with a dog that I didn’t know. If you are around dogs you don’t know, I recommend you do that same. Use your peripheral vision to track the dog’s movement. Get low to the ground – which is simultaneously the most risky and safest thing you can do. If you can’t hold still once you go to the ground you are toast. That takes practice – the kind of practice that an animal control officer can get that you likely can’t. If you think that means that you probably shouldn’t get in that position in the first place, I’d agree. Lots of people think they are good with dogs. Lots of dogs aren’t good with people who are “good with dogs.” This pseudo-scientific research project was meant to create a paper suitable to be published in a scientific journal. It accomplished that task. It did not prove that humans love dogs because they share lingering eye-contact. Get bit just once and you’ll rethink the premise.

Note: My continuing success at avoiding bites is not meant to advocate, suggest or promote anything as a course of action that could translate from a blog post to practical knowledge. Some dogs can bite you even if you do everything right. My only serious bite came from that kind of situation. So, tread softly and carry a stick you can put in the dog’s mouth if it tries to bite you. To be blunt, this is not a tutorial but an anecdote that comments on a scientific research study.

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