Thursday, May 22, 2008

The "Eyes" Have It!

As promised, here's a description of the “eyes” exercise and how it works. Enjoy!

The “Eyes” Have It!
Before we get into the mechanics of the exercise, it’s important to understand how dogs experience the world. Clearly any given dog will have a somewhat different response to any number of different stimuli. However on the most basic, fundamental level there are a few simple principles at work, and they work all the time with all dogs, no matter the breed type or past history of abuse, etc. And those principles are based simply on how a dog reacts to shifts in energy, whether theyre brought about by changes in the environment or in the dogs own internal energy. 

To a dog energy, no matter how weak or strong, comes in the form of simple emotions that are most often felt as either a feeling of attraction to something or resistance to it, or a combination of the two. And just as with electricity, or any other type of energy a dog’s natural form of energy, that of simple emotions, will tend to flow more freely toward an attractor while a resistor is something that presents an obstacle. One of our main goals in dog training is to stimulate a dog’s energy to flow toward us, not away from us. In other words, we want a dog to feel highly attracted to us emotionally, not resistant.

With me so far?

To a dog one of the primary natural attractors is prey, or anything that stimulates his predatory emotions such as a squirrel, a toy, another dog he likes to play with at the dog run, a human who plays fetch or tug with him (or who just feeds him), or even a leaf caught in a breeze.

The other polarity—that of resistance—is based on the need to be safe from harm, to avoid danger. In the wild a wolf has no natural predators except for—oddly enough—the same animals he and his pack members prey upon: elk, deer, moose, etc. They’re not really predators, of course; they’re not going to kill and eat the wolf. However, the wolf doesnt know that. All he knows (or I should say feels) is that his energy, which was flowing so pleasurably toward an objectiveinvolving a deep-rooted urge to bite what's moving away from himhas now been reversed. The moose is no longer an attractor but a resistor. In other words, when a wolf is chasing a moose he’s in predatory mode—full of strong feelings of attraction. If the moose turns and stands his ground, the wolf stops dead in his tracks. And the primary trigger point for his feelings of resistance at that moment is the level of gaze that the moose has, which is exaggerated by his big antlers. In essence, the wolf is stopped dead in his tracks by nothing but the moose’s eyes. And it doesnt matter in the slightest if you replace the word wolf with proto-wolf, or proto-dog, or pre-doglike-canid, or whatever. The energetic essence of the situation even works with cat and mice.

When a puppy comes into the world he has to have some remnants of those wild, wolflike feelings within him; they’re part of his survival repertoire, what’s enabled the species to survive for hundreds of thousands of years, if not longer. And one of a pup’s first emotional or energetic reactions to a vertical human being, with eyes located way up high in a very big head, is that of unconscious resistance. (Remember this is all unconscious; the puppy doesnt know what hes feeling, he just feels it and reacts in a knee-jerk manner.) And as humans when we sense a pup’s “shyness,” what do we usually do? We come down to his level, breaking the tension and attempting to overcome his feelings of resistance toward us. Even a pup who is very friendly, showing no hesitation about coming toward us is in all likelihood experiencing strong feelings of resistance mixed with attraction (that’s why his tail wags or he gets wiggly, he has two opposing emotions working together in his body). And if you think about, even when the wolf is stopped dead in his tracks by the eyes of the moose (or the cat by the mouse) he still has a strong feeling of attraction to that moose.

The “Eyes!” exercise increases your dog’s social attraction toward you, reducing his natural resistance, and has the added side-effect of grounding your dog’s energy whenever it starts to spin out of control. This makes it a great tool for curbing leash aggression, an overeager interest in squirrels, or even for training the recall.

Before we get started, remember, dogs respond to us on an unconscious level either as pack members (when we hang out at home), potential prey (when we play with them), and potential predators (because our level of gaze is the same as that of wolf’s only natural enemies). In the wild, eye contact can spell the difference between life and death. We want to make our dogs’ eye contact with us a solution to their problems, not a cause for concern or resistance to obeying us. We want to reduce resistance and amp up our attraction to them. And one way we can do that is by making our eye contact with our dogs a source of pleasure and satisfaction.

So here’s how we do the “Eyes!” exercise (as with most exercises where you’re using food, I personally wouldn’t do this with a dog who has food aggression, or whom I don’t already know pretty well):

Have your dog seated in front of you. Pet and praise him, holding the leash about 2-3 inches away from the collar. The leash is not there for the purpose of restraining the dog, or to keep him from doing anything he wants to. It’s basically just there to give him a feeling of being under control, and as a safety measure in case the dog gets too frustrated by the exercise (yes, the exercise will be frustrating initially). The reason you want to hold the leash so close to the collar is so that you can use that hand to pet him or scratch his neck if he gets too nervous.

Start feeding him some tasty treats. Then show him a treat, but hold it deliberately between your thumb and forefinger so that when he looks at it he’s also seeing a large negative space, almost like an eye. It’s not an eye, of course, but he’ll feel an unconscious attraction to that space and a mild nervousness, almost as if it were the eye of a predator.
 Hold your hand like this, but flip your wrist down, 
so that the palm of your hand is facing the floor
and the empty space, not the palm, faces the dog.

Remember, this is an emotional reaction, not a conscious one. For instance, the workers at rubber plantations in Malaysia wear masks on the backs of their heads to prevent tigers from attacking them. And it works. But it doesn’t work because the tigers “think” the workers can see them. That would require a rudimentary theory of mind and even chimps don’t have that ability (or I should say they probably don’tthe jury is still out). So the tigers aren’t holding themselves back from attacking the workers because the they believe there are actual eyes staring at them from the back of the workers’ heads; they respond on a purely visceral, unconscious level to that negative space and its location in the general shape of the head. It’s something that’s embedded deep into the DNA of all predators and prey animals alike. The same principle applies to how your dog views that space between your thumb and forefinger. (I know this all sounds a little crazy, but you’ll see exactly what I mean once you’ve done it.)

After a few treats, keeping little make-believe eye with your thumb and forefinger in the dog's field of vision, hold your arm out to the side, so that it and your torso are forming a right angle, and your hand is at the same level as your eyes.

Praise him a little, and if he shows nervousness, pet him a little. Then swoop the treat toward him, ending up 3-4 inches away. Keep that “eye” made by your thumb and forefinger visible to him the whole time. (If he tries to grab it before you swoop it toward him either swoop it further away or get him back into position with the leash, etc.)

If he tries to grab the treat when you swoop it close to him (which he probably will), swoop your arm back to its original, right-angle position, at the same level as your eyes. Keep repeating this – swoop it down to about 3-4 inches from the dog
s snout, then swoop it back up (but only if he makes an attempt to grab it). Then, when you swoop the treat toward him and you see that the dog is holding still or pull back, either physically or emotionally, hold it there, still and steady, about 3 inches from the dog’s snout. If he moves toward it again, swoop it back up.

At some point he’ll be staring at the treat while you’re holding it near him, not knowing how to get it, not knowing what you want him to do. And then suddenly, and perhaps very briefly, his eyes will dart over to yours. Its as if he’s looking to you to help him solve this problem. The instant he looks at you immediately put the treat right into his mouth and praise him. You’ve not only given him the answer to his problem, as far as he’s concerned you are the answer.

Repeat a few more times until you’re able to read his facial expressions so that you can pretty much predict when his eyes are going to dart away from the treat and lock onto yours instead. Then your timing for giving him the treat will be more exact, and you can start adding the word “Eyes,” as you give him the treat. Next, do it with your non-dominant hand, depending on whether you’re right or left-handed, so he’ll understand this is only about making eye contact, not about which side the treat is coming from.

Next, increase the amount of time he’s able to hold your gaze before you give him the treat. Then you can start putting the treat closer and closer to his mouth, working up to the point where you’re actually dancing it on his nose, or pressing it against his upper lip, and he still won’t try to take it; he’ll keep looking you in the eyes instead.

Once he’s got that down, you can give him the “Eyes” command as a way of solving all sorts of other problems. Stand with him at the front door, holding the door slightly open. Say “Eyes,” and when he looks up at you, instantly open the door wide and let him go through. You can do the same thing at the dog run. You can also use it as part of a game of fetch. Hold a tennis ball in the
“eye” position, give your dog the “eyes” command, and when he makes eye contact, immediately throw the ball for him to chase.

Once you have all that under your collective belts, if you have a leash-aggressive dog, whenever he gets worked up about seeing other dogs on his walks, say “Eyes,” and he’ll look at you instead. The same for dogs who become obsessed with seeing squirrels in the park. With some dogs I like to play a game where I put the dog in a down/stay then toss a ball or treat in front of her. I wait for her to look away from the object, look me in the eyes, and then I say, Okay! Get it!

There are all sorts of applications!

"Changing the World, One Dog at a Time"


  1. Hello!

    My dog is very small--about 10 pounds--so very close to the ground. When I do this training with him, should I be sitting on the ground in front of him? Or actually standing *way* up there?

    I'm guessing maybe start out sitting down, and then move to standing once he's getting it, but want to check with you.

    Amy & Josh

    (FYI: I've just had my dog for two months. He'll be 2 in March, and came to me with very nice manners that I want to keep and build on. I was leaning toward the Caesar Millan route, but started reading online today, found your blog, and am happy to have the sense of fun, love, and play back at the forefront. :)

  2. Hi, Amy,

    Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found the blog!

    When I do the eyes exercise with ANY dog I always do it sitting down, usually in a chair, or on a park bench, or on the front stoop of a brownstone.

    If you're more comfortable doing it on the floor, that's fine too. In the beginning it's not about the height difference between us and our dogs. It has more to do with the direct eye contact. That, in and of itself, creates resistance in the dog (remember: the rubber plantation workers were supposedly able to scare off tigers just by wearing "eyes" on the backs of their heads).

    Once you start using the "eyes" command in other contexts, like having your dog give you eyes before going out for a walk, or before he can eat his dinner, or before he can say hello to another dog on his walks, then you'll be standing up when he looks you in the eyes.

    You're not doing any of these things to enforce your position as his pack leader, by the way. But dogs have two basic ways of operating: as part of a group or as an independent agent. We want to foster as much of that feeling of connectedness to us as possible in our dogs because it's always the independent behaviors that put them less under OUR control and can potentially get them into trouble. Some independence is good, but dogs should not be allowed to decide for themselves whether it's a good idea to chase a squirrel across a busy highway, or go after a porcupine, etc.

    I hope this helps,


  3. Hi Lee;

    As you suggested in your email to me, I've tried this exercise with my border collie. However, because this breed is excellent for staring, she actually "got it" better when we were playing fetch than trying it at home with a treat.

    When we are out in an open field, she tends to anticipate where I'm going to throw, so I wanted her to look at me from a distance.

    It only took a couple of times of pointing to my eyes and telling her "watch me" or "look at me" followed by a warm "nice!" from me when she did.

    Then, as we walked along off leash with her about ten feet ahead, she would frequently turn her head and look me in the eyes. "nice!" turn and look. "nice! Now go play with the dogs!" lol

    That girl definitely has no issues with eye contact, that's for sure.

    But it is a slick technique for getting her attention in a hurry. Thanks for suggesting it.

  4. It's true. Some dogs like the exercise better when you use a toy instead of a treat.

    It sounds like you guys have a great thing going on. I really love it when a dog is making that kind of eye contact...


  5. I got this e-mail last week from a reader in Canada:

    Hi Lee;

    I hope this finds you well.

    I neglected to mention in my post on your site that the use of the "push" and "eyes" exercises have worked very well with her.

    I still use the "eyes" command frequently when we're outdoors, especially at the park when I want to direct her attention long distance (i.e. she's anticipated I'm going to throw the ball in a particular direction and I want her to watch me throw it somewhere else). It's also helpful now that we're able to do on-leash walks in the neighborhood to re-direct her attention from other dogs. I love being able to do this rather than resort to the old leash corrections.

    It had another benefit recently I hadn't anticipated. I examine her regularly so she's used to being handled everywhere and to stay on top of her health. I used the "eyes" command to get her to turn her head to me to check them. Recently she developed an eye infection that required gel, and it was extremely easy to apply it. "Sit. Eyes". In went the drops, no fuss. My vet marvels at how easy she is to examine.

    Great tools, Lee. Thanks!


  6. Hi there!

    There was only one thing I didn't quite understand. When you say 'eyes' to your dog they look at you and you then become the solution (i.e. the food is given, the toy is thrown).

    My dog gets aggressive on leash walks when other dogs pass. After you say 'eyes' and the dog looks at you, what do you then offer them as their solution when all they want is to make contact with the other dog? (food or toy isn't enticing enough).

    Often the other dog owner isn't interested in letting the dogs greet, probably because she's acting so anxious/aggressive as they approach.

    So what does she get for giving me 'eyes' in that situation?

  7. Hi, Lisa,

    While the dog's problem seems to be, "How do I get the treat?" or "How do I get the toy?", the real, underlying problem is "What do I do with my energy?"

    The solution to that problem is "When you look me in the eyes, you can ground any excess energy you're feeling."

    Direct eye contact has the effect of increasing the energy in whatever feeling state a dog is in. If she's nervous/fearful about meeting other dogs, and the other dog makes direct eye contact, she gets overloaded. By getting her to a) break eye contact with the other dog, and b) make eye contact with you, you become like a ground wire.

    Fear runs on electricity. Electricity has to "go to ground."

    For more, please read


  8. Hey Lee

    Thanks so much for sharing this Eyes exercise. It was the very first NDT thing I did with Bindi. When I first brought her home from the streets, she was just a 5-6 month old pup. Putting her on a leash was like saddling a wild horse. She NEVER looked at me when we were out. When we were walking, she'd be pulling in an arc and stalking everything. She was very much in her own world, and did not give me any eye contact. I did not exist.

    After doing your Eyes exercise for a few days, a cool thing happened. We were walking in the park and some birds were flapping and flying way up above the trees. Bindi looked at them, then she turned and looked at me!

    It seems like such a simple thing - a glance - but to me, it was a precious gift! It was the very first time she gave me eye contact when we were out! I think that really helped to create a connection between us.

    Before that, I didn't fully understand the NDT phrase, "The negative grants access to the positive" but I trusted the process and we practiced it together, and your Eyes exercise made such a difference!

    Thank you, Lee!

  9. You're welcome, Mel.

    It's funny how such a "small" thing can mean so much.


  10. Good morning,

    I used this to connect with my dog who has separation anxiety. But what I am really wondering if I can use "eyes" for when he is using dominant behavior to our bulldog. They are near the same age, but very different in height. My male dog is a german shepard/labrador mix. My female dog is a pure english bulldog. The female is always submissive to him. But the mix will go to her and show his teeth and posture dominantly. If I use eyes when he is acting dominant aggressive towards her, will it work to make him stop? Or what will it do during that even?

  11. Tonya,

    "Dominance" isn't really about dominance, per se. It's a symptom of anxiety & stress.

    Direct eye contact between two dogs can amplify aggression. Having one of the dogs focus on you instead, should help defuse things a little. It all depends on whether you can get your male to do the "eyes" while he's feeling aggressive.

    Will your male play tug-of-war with you outdoors?