Eye contact is one of the first behaviors that I typically teach a dog. First - what the click means. Second - the concept that leaving the treat in my hand alone (by choice) results in the dog getting the treat. Third - eye contact.
Of course, Tessa was different. When she came to my home, she was in such a fearful state of being that I really had to dispense with any and all conventions and figure out what would work for her.
I figured out early on that offered eye contact during training/performance was not something that could be realistically expected of her.
As she came to trust me, Tessa did make casual eye contact. I will never forget the hours that she spent on her chair watching everything. Watching the dogs, watching me, watching life happen around her. When I met her eyes with mine, she did not typically look away, but neither did she engage me with her eyes. She took the fact that I was look at her in, as she took everything else in, but that was all.
Of course, as she came to know and trust me, and as she started to enjoy being in my presence, she often looked to me with a joyful expression.
But in training, eye contact did not happen. She might look my way in an everyday way, but she never turned her visual focus to my eyes.
I decided long ago that this behavior was not something that I would ever ask of Tessa.
However, as I started to work on the exercises for Precision Heeling, I realized that it would be extremely handy if Tessa would offer that sort of eye contact. Yes, I can get her to hold her head up as we move if I use a treat, but without her making a visual connection, that sort of head up is a behavior that is going to deteriorate quickly.
So, I backed off from the actual Precision Heeling exercises and began to wait for Tessa to offer eye contact and click/treat it.
At first it was extremely fleeting. Tessa would do everything else but offer eye contact! She would pivot, she would waggle her tail, she would look toward me, but not meet my eyes, she would lay down, she would sit, she would lift her paws. Finally . . . there it was - the tiniest and quickest little eye flick up. Click/treat.
Honestly, it didn't take long. Within the first session she not only started to offer that eye contact, but she stopped offering everything else to lift her eyes to mine.
After a few sessions, it was clear that she had the idea and raising her head and meeting my eyes with hers not only became a "thing" to her, but it became a behavior that she clearly enjoyed and was very pleased with herself over!
A couple of days ago I was working with her on backing up to a toe board and instead of doing that, she planted herself firmly in front of me and offered eye contact!! Not a fleeting glance, but a locked in, deliberate, and very focused eye contact!! I actually reinforced that a few times before we went back to working the backing.
This one simple accomplishment fills me with profound amazement. When Tessa offers me her eyes, her expression is soft and it is like I can see into the depth of her being. She radiates joy and trust. Trust. There is nothing that this dog will ever give me that will mean more than her trust!
Back to the beginning again, Tessa had no trust for anyone human! She trusted the dogs. She would move herself to blend in with them so she would escape my notice, especially as she moved in and out of doors. She used to lay on the furniture and carefully watch and, if you moved suddenly, or toward her even a little, she would suddenly spring, like a wild rabbit, from where she was to another piece of furniture!
There was no convincing her that I, or anyone, was worthy of her trust. But, gradually . . . very gradually, she did start to trust.
When she lifts her gaze to meet my eyes with those beautiful soft brown eyes of hers, it is like we are sharing the world's most delightful secret, and there is nobody else in the world she would ever think of sharing it with.
Eye contact, after all, is not a "behavior" for Tessa. It is a gift. It is a rare glimpse into the Tessa that she keeps hidden down deep inside herself.
There is no title, there is no Q, there is no championship, there is no performance accomplishment that will ever mean as much to me as the gift of Tessa's trust.
I look forward to looking into those eyes more and more as we continue to train and develop and grow as a team.
Those eyes also convey a promise. A promise that the best is yet to come. And there is no dog I would rather take this ride with.
And I'd say that's mutual.