A “Look Away” is the dog equivalent of saying “You’re being too pushy”. I see this behaviour a lot during greetings between an older dog and a much younger dog, where the younger dog comes on a bit too strong. The older dog will continue to avoid direct eye contact with the younger dog to get across the message of “I’m not interested”.
I will also see this behaviour during play between dogs when one player has gotten a little over zealous and the other needs a break. Or (and this is going to be the most relevant to owners) during a training session when the owner is asking their dog to “Focus” or look them in the eye. Many people do understand that direct eye contact with a dog can be intimidating or even threatening to dogs and most people try to avoid this with dogs they don’t know very well. However it is easy to maintain ‘soft’ eye contact with a dog that trusts you and isn’t feeling threatened.
The training session scenarios looks like this…
1. Owner is trying to practice eye contact and leans in towards their dog.
2. The dog is mildly intimidated by this “lean over” and attempts the “I’m not comfortable” behaviour of looking away with a possible tongue flick as well.
3. The owner interprets this as the dog “ignoring” them, gets frustrated, and further insists on the eye contact by getting down close to the dogs face, yanking the lead, and increasing the “assertiveness” of their voice (yelling).
How is this miscommunication avoided? A good understanding of dog body language can help but even then we sometimes forget to pay attention to what our own body language is telling the dog (sometimes by accident)! It can help to use your video option on your camera and video a short session between you and your dog. It is much easier to see your own (and your dog’s reaction) to your body language.
If you are not getting the behaviour from your dog that you would like and you are not sure how to elicit it without repeating your cue, increasing your volume, or physically forcing the behaviour, then consider a change of environment. Practice in a less distracting environment for awhile so that your dog can get some easy repetitions in. You will find that his responses will get quicker and more confident with the extra practice in an easier environment, this will make is easier to generalize the behaviour to that more distracting situation later.
a Look Away is also the first sign that a dog is nervous when children approach. Look for this behaviour and make sure you intervene between a child and dog interaction if you notice the dog look away, tongue flick, or move away from a child. This will show the dog that you won’t put him in a situation that makes him uncomfortable and will build trust. It will also prevent a dog who likes or tolerates children to continue to like and tolerate them, instead of escalating their “back off” behaviour by growling or biting.