Monday, April 20, 2015


I am working on a horse post. It's about collection. It's really haaaaaard (can you hear the whine?).
In the meantime, a theory about how Brockle has offered some of his behaviors has wriggled through my mind.

This is pure speculation on my part. It does come from the knowledge I've been absorbing since I decided to study dog training and behavior. I would love some feedback.

While learning to read dog body language, I came across a  stern warning again and again, from many different sources.

"A dog who looks directly at you, actually staring at you with a tense facial expression, is another matter indeed. A direct stare is much more likely to be a threat, and if you’re in close proximity to such a dog, it’s wise to slowly look away." PetMD

Recently, I keep finding articles telling me that people and their dogs both get a surge of oxytocin when they look into each others eyes. 

When I met Brockle, I hadn't studied any of this stuff. He stood tall, didn't give ground or cower, his mouth was tight, his ears were erect and his tail hung at half mast, with no welcoming wag. He looked straight into my eyes.

He made direct eye contact again and again.

I'm glad I was ignorant about what his body was saying.

If I go by my beginning book learning, this tense, tight-mouthed dog was challenging me, or even thinking about biting me.

His eye contact was unsettling. It felt like he was desperately trying to tell me something. I decided he was asking me to bust him out. So I did.

Obviously, I'm glad I made the decision. I have learned that I have a tense, nervous dog. He was almost paralyzed with anxiety when we met. I've had to get used to the eye contact, he's either got it or is seeking it almost 24/7. 

Since I was his fourth owner in the first 11 months of his life, he had good reasons for being wound a little tight. 

He is much calmer now even if he still likes to look deep into my eyes. I could humanize him by saying he's looking into my soul, but I have a sneaky suspicion he's an oxcytocin whore.

The training I've been taught to use with Brockle, is to essentially convince him I'm the biggest and best party in town. Hanging with me is better than anything else in the world, and listening to me is better than that. 

This approach has been working just fine, but how does it explain his offered behaviors to assist me? What reward does he get from bugging me to sit down when my blood pressure is dropping? What inspired him to help me get up off the floor, steady me when my balance goes and walk me up and down stairs?

Again, I could say it's because he looooooves me, and I'm not saying he doesn't, but that's too simplistic.

Here's what I'm thinking. Brockle is insecure. He guards me like a peanut butter filled Kong. He also has one of the pokier noses I've ever dealt with. He sniffs me often. Not a dainty little sniff mind you, but a deep, kind of damp snorfling, breaking all personal space boundaries. 

He's obsessed with pits. Not just crotches, but arm pits, elbow pits, ears, nostrils and knee pits. He wants to check my breath several times a day. He's finally quit crotch-diving every person he meets, but has perfected the drive by whiff.

He goes crazy with any kind of wound, on any person, dog or horse. He wants to lick it until it's healed. He chased the kidlet for days trying to get at a semi-infected oozy scrape on her achilles. She kinda hates him, I'm not going to lie.

I'm pretty sure my scent changes when I'm feeling poorly. 

I think the offered behaviors started with Brockle just wanting a snootful of the new odor. He was obnoxious enough to make me sit down. Once I sat, his reward was being able to sniff.

I realized he did this when I was going to crash and began rewarding him with food when he helped me out. It became an established behavior.

He becomes frightened when I'm not steady on my feet. Even more so if I fall. His first instinct was to crowd as close as he could. I think it was more of a "Hold me, I'm scared," than an offer for me to lean on him. 

I re-balanced myself by grabbing his ruff. He was happy because I got back on course and I reinforced him with praise and treats.  

In return, Brockle has made these behaviors his job. It has made him more confident. Is it because he knows what to do to stop situations that used to frighten him? I don't know.

His rude sniffing may be annoying, but I have a better understanding of why he does it. My pits are still off limits, but I have decided he gets all the oxytocin he wants.  

So there's my theory. 


  1. As someone who owns an "intense" starer, I was worried a little that I was encouraging him to be dominant (he's an Anatolian X something) when we first got him. He was a 3yo rescue from the shelter - they didn't put him on the adoption floor because of his intense stare. Now, I am glad I didn't encourage the stare at first because I did want to establish that I wasn't his next treat. However, once he became attached at the hip to us (my husband and I), I started to interact with eye contact. We now gaze lovingly into each other eyes.... lol. He's a deep reader of faces and looks to us for reassurance (unless he's on high alert protecting us from who know's what).

    I can't say we encourage the eye contact but we do use it for fun (like when we're talking to him).

    He also is an INSANE sniffer. He loves smelly pits of all kinds and will not hesitate to dig his nose in. Thankfully he does not crotch-dive much anymore. But everything must be sniffed thoroughly. Door knobs, the trail from the door to whatever room you are in, dirty clothes, clean clothes, soap, bookbags, purses, etc.

    Does your Brockle have to rub his body over clothes/soaps/after perfume/cleaning sprays have been used? Oliver does.

  2. As a person interested in canine science, I would say that your theorizing closely matches my own based on the sorts of studies I've read. Every anxious dog I've owned or fostered was absolutely intent on eye contact, but these types dogs tend to watch me a LOT more in general than non-anxious dogs, even when I'm not watching them back.

    I would posit that because you've been busily teaching Brockle that you are where it's at, he has come to depend on your mental and physical well-being. If you are off, he's off, and if there's anything he can do to affect your behaviour (or scent, or whatever is triggering him) that helps you regain your equilibrium, those actions essentially help him regain his equilibrium, and in anxious dogs, feeling safe is their biggest drive.

    This explains why things that would often be scary for a dog--being grabbed by the scruff or bodily manipulated or any of the other close work and eye contact that Brockle offers--is no big deal for him. If he has learned through trial and error or by being rewarded by you either consciously or unconsciously that these behaviours of his directly lead to his feeling safer, that's a huge incentive for him to keep doing them.

  3. The other day we had a 6 month old lab pup visiting. I kept thinking, "What's the matter with her? She's so disconnected."
    Then I realized she wasn't staring at me. She's a totally normal dog.
    My dogs have all picked up Brockle's eye contact habit - we're the weirdos.

  4. Yeah, Totally Normal Dog = Boring in my books. That eye contact is essential to my bonding with a dog.

  5. I agree, normal dogs are boring. Wolfhounds are know for their direct eye contact. Here is one example. (complete with dirty nose)

  6. I'm curious, does Brockle make direct eye contact with others or just you?

  7. My self-appointed guard dog is the one who makes the most eye contact with me, actively seeking it out. He is also the nosiest. If he's not sleeping as close to me as he can get, he's outside making sure all potential threats are recognized and evaluated and announced. When I have company, it drives him crazy to be separated from me by the fence when there are other people/dogs near me. He's a German Shepherd mind trapped in the body of a Pomeranian. Granted, he's a 17lb throwback Pom, but a Pom nonetheless. Fascinating how the same behavior sets correlate though.

  8. Mainly me...but if he wants something from someone he stares straight at him.

  9. My Aussie cross was very insecure and needed eye contact to feel safe. She was also really sensitive to mood and emotional atmosphere.

    She was not average at all. I was crazy about that girl and heartbroken when she had to go.

    A "normal" dog moved in soon after, not mine mind you - the BIL's. She is a great big Golden Lab Duh! She smiles when she is in trouble, or when you talk to her, but when you look into her eyes you can see she just has a dim bulb flickering.

    Give me the Weirdo's any day.

  10. My pittie/rhodesian ridgeback mix is all about the eye contact, too. He isn't allowed on one of our couches (he has his own), and he "checks on me" by walking up to me and laying his head on my chest and staring into my eyes. He does it over and over, every day. He constantly has to be touching me- I joke that if he could crawl inside my body to be closer to me, he would. I think pretty much all my pictures of him are of him staring at me, because he does it so often; I used to think it was creepy, but I've gotten used to it. He is my "velcro dog" and is alllllll about the sniffing, too. arms, wrists, ears, knees, face, face, face... haha. Interestingly enough, he also has issues with insecurity and separation anxiety. Never thought about connecting the two, but it really does make sense!

  11. Mine constantly seeks eye contact as well, even though he's doesn't have big insecurities. But we do a LOT of training together and he is convinced I'm the best toy ever.

    I think the generally-accepted advice about dogs & eye contact came about because the majority of the dog-owning public are irremedially thick. There is a big difference (to anyone with half a brain) between a dog GLARING at you because he wants to bite your face off and a dog wanting eye contact to connect. In the same way there is a difference between how you glare at your dogs when they are doing something undesirable; dogs are perfectly capable of seeing the difference. Most people are completely clueless about dogs and their body language, though. I class it in the same category as advice to "NEVER walk behind a horse" ... pointless advice for anyone who has an iota of awareness, but useful for idiots who can't see the difference between a horse dozing with a hip cocked and one with a hind foot ready to fire.


  12. interesting, my insecure, shy Catahoula avoids too much eye contact with me, although she will look adoringly into my husbands eyes. however, she always comes for a close sniff of me when I return home, or even if we are out on a trail and she comes back to touch base, I am not "me" to her just by looks or voice, I have to be smelled.

  13. I have to admit, the eye contact thing was one of the reasons that our family had such a hard time connecting to our "rescue" dog.

    He was drastically under-socialized, and deeply suspicious. At first, eye contact could be used to chase him around the room as he avoided your gaze. If he couldn't avoid looking at you, you got the whale eye.

    Now, two years later, he still doesn't want to gaze lovingly into my eyes. He'll meet my eyes for small things, when he's looking for direction, when he's unsettled and wants me to rescue him from a difficult situation, for tricks, training and treats, but that's it. He always glances at me, and then away, repeating until he's got my attention if necessary.

    Holding eye contact for no reason makes him very uncomfortable.

    However, he's becoming more "connected" to us all the time. I'm starting to be amazed by just how much attention he is paying to us, by sneaking peaks and watching us out of the corner of his eye.

  14. Pony Fan -- wouldn't his aversion to eye contact be polite behavior in dog speak? Maybe an under-socialized dog has a harder time letting go of his dog language and taking on the very human behavior of looking into our eyes.
    I bet feral dogs would have a helluva time.

  15. These dog posts get my brain working double time. I've stayed a half dozen comments and deleted them all as they get too lengthy and ADD-ish (ooh! Shiny!).

    I'm fascinated by all the commenters piping up about their own Brockle-like dogs. When you first started discussing him on your blog I felt this internal sigh of relief: my dog isn't the only freak out there! This said with lI've and respect, of course. Am interested in the anxiety/insecurity component that may play a role. I've got a 16month old male rough collie who has many of the same behaviors as Brockle. Unnerving eye contact, obsession with order, scary smart, protective to a fault, etc. he's also obsessed with pits of all kinds, mostly mine. I would love to get his crotch obsession whittled to drive bys, all my correcting has had very little influence. He's still intact, so perhaps that's part of it.
    I'm interested in this idea about the role socialization plays in it. My other collie was a neglect case and had lived outside with another collie for 5 years before coming into rescue. She doesn't do much eye contact and I get the sense as well that she finds prolonged eye contact rude.

  16. Please forgive above typos. Dumb autocorrect.

  17. mugwump - I think you're right, he was being a very *polite* dog. And he still is remarkably *polite*.

    It was just us idiot humans who took his lack of eye contact for a lack of attention and affection for us.

    Jen - my pup came from an older lady who wanted a cat, I think, he stayed in the apartment, used the litter box, and kept himself entertained while she was at work all day. She'd kennel him after supper so she could get some sleep.

    Even my other dog had a hard time communicating with him at first, a lot of his reactions were purely instinctual.

    I thought myself rather dog-savvy until he came along, and I realized that I had no idea what to do with him.

  18. Dogs are very social animals, so I think you should not discount that he is trying to help you when he tries to get you to sit down, etc. Certainly your rewarding him encourages this and lets him know it is ok, but that doesn't discount he might be actively trying to help.

    I had a very interesting experience with one of my geldings about 3 years ago. He is head of his herd. We were walking together (at liberty) to our usual training spot one evening when he got a fright and ran between me and the fence; there wasn't quite enough room to fit and as he brushed past he sent me rolling into the dirt. I checked everything was functional, got up, he came back a few steps and I went up and talked to him, didn't chastise, just reassured I was ok, knew he hadn't meant it but had to be careful because I'm so small and easily hurt. ( :) Yes, I realise I probably sound a bit of a fruitcake and I don't expect he understood every word, but I think he understood something). We finished our exercise as usual.

    Next morning when I took the hay through I was very stiff and sore and he seemed diffident with me, so I reassured again I was ok but he needed to be careful. I was astounded when he did not come up and eat off the barrow as usual, instead calmly got in front of the three other horses and kept them back all the way up to the feeders and until I had put the hay out - it was the safest feeding out I'd ever done.

    That evening I was even more surprised when I went through and the mare came up to eat off the barrow and he just left her there and calmly kept the other two back; usually if another horse did that he would rush up and push them off, often nearly over me. It was very dangerous, and no amount of arm waving or making myself big or whatever had stopped it.

    He has continued to 'guard' me when I take the hay up, either moving other horses away or if they are too close standing where he does not add pressure to the situation. I certainly praised him when he initially offered the behaviour, but the timing of it, the morning after he accidentally bumped me over, makes me think he realised I can get knocked off my feet very easily and so he tok steps to protect me. It is certainly above and beyond anything I would have expected of a horse, but then, they are very social creatures, and I've read of many instances of a sighted horse being the eyes for a blind buddy and so on.

  19. I remember the day our rescue pit bull went from hard staring to soft eye. It reminded me of the soft eye on a horse, weirdly enough, something it took me a while to see as a novice horse owner.

    All our dogs maintain eye contact, but the feel of it is soft. I don't trust dogs that won't look at you. Maybe I want to be gazed at lovingly. That's the price for free food and bones. Fair trade in my book.

    We are still working on her hyper vigilance. There is a theory that people who have had traumatic childhoods have part of their brain that senses danger overdevelop. They then see danger all around them constantly, misread or over-react.

    I imagine the same happens to dogs.

  20. Your Brockle is quite the interesting guy! Lucky that you found each other. Both of our "Borderline" Collies are big on staring but I think that could be a breed characteristic? They stare down whatever it is they're trying to herd. My husband's dog will sit next to him and stare at me with this penetrating gaze that's almost spooky. She's a lover, though somewhat neurotic. BTW I am looking forward to your article on collection! :)

  21. Grimm's Hairy TailsMay 2, 2015 at 1:34 AM

    My daughter found a 75 pound 7 month old puppy dodging traffic on a busy highway at dark 2 days before Christmas a year ago. We were stuck with him for the holidays because the animal shelter was closed. During that time we learned that he was terrified of men, but he gazed into my eyes like my husband used to when we were first married. After 2 days of adoration I wouldn't have given him back to his owners even if they had tried to find him. He was a rock star in obedience class, aced the CGC, and has his therapy dog certification. He is too polite to obviously sniff a person, but he will sneak a sideways whiff on a pass by, and he likes air scent and discrimination games. And he still looks at me like I walk on water. The dog behavior people are wrong. Eye contact isn't always about aggression or dominance, and an imtelligent dog will use eye contact to communicate if the handler is willing and open to what the dog is trying to say.

  22. Hey Mugs = are you okay. Getting worried = haven't heard from you in while

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  25. I'm worried, too. Hoping you are okay, Mugs!

  26. Does anyone know if Mugs is okay?

  27. She's perfectly fine - just doesn't want to write blog at moment. Still on facebook though