7 Tips to Stop a Dog From Getting Upset with Eye Contact from Strangers

By: David Codr

Published Date: May 16, 2024

dog eye contact dominance

During this Omaha dog training session, we focus on exercises and share additional tips to help 5-year-old St. Bernard Zeus overcome his aggression triggered by dog eye contact from strangers.

Knowing that Zeus was sometimes human reactive, I arranged to meet him outside his home using a method I developed that usually causes dogs to be very happy once they meet the person. It worked, for the most part. Zeus did show some reactivity towards me the end of the greeting when I made brief eye contact with him, so we walked for a bit before heading inside.

Once Zeus had relaxed a bit, we headed inside to work on his problem with eye contact.

Dog Eye Contact Dominance Tips

Some dogs have what is called “dog eye contact dominance;” barking and reacting when receiving eye contact from people they don’t know. I have stopped dogs from barking when receiving direct eye contact by changing how they perceive it.

I’ve found a simple operant conditioning based focus exercise is a great way to stop dogs from barking when people look directly at them. But in Zeus’s case, I’d like to have more of a plan than just a one time exercise. So here are my 7 steps to set the dog’s greeting up for success.

  1. Exercise Zeus appropriately before each step, making sure Zeus has at least 10 minutes to recover before the person arrives.
  2. Meet Zeus outside using this greeting strategy.
  3. Go for a short walk after Zeus sniffs them a few times.
  4. Treat tossing. Starting outside in the front of the home, the guest tells Zeus to sit (while avoiding eye contact), then tosses a treat. Repeat that 5-10 times, then Zeus leads them inside and the guest repeats the sit, treat toss for another 10 – 20 treats.
  5. Provided Zeus is not reactive, the guardian should practice this click for looks exercise.
  6. Once Zeus is very comfortable with the person, they can practice the focus exercise outlined in the free positive dog training video below.
  7. Have strangers avoid direct eye contact with Zeus until he gets to know them.

How to Help Stop Dog  Eye Contact Problems

By training the dog to focus and make eye contact to get the treat, Zeus’s guardian can help him see that eye contact from people is a good thing. They should properly exercise him first, and only do this after doing the previous steps mentioned at the beginning of this write up. Make sure the guardian does a few first before the guest’s turn. We call this warming up.

While this is a very effective treatment to stop dogs from barking when they get eye contact, it needs practice. And its super important the dog is not reactive at any point during said practice. If they are, the dog is too close or the humans rushed through the previous step. If that happens, they need to back up a step and practice there a few times before moving the the next step to try again.

The guardian may also use a leash tether for the focus exercise. This way the dog is near the end of the leash when practicing with the guest. Just in case Zeus decides to lunge, the leash tether can prevent him from reaching the human.

The key for this procedure is to keep them short and successful. You want to build one positive experience on top of another and ALWAYS end on a success or good note. That is the freshest memory the dog will have so keeping that one positive and happy is key.

These steps may need to be practiced separately, in subsequent visits. So visit one may be steps 1-3, next visit step 4, then step 5 the next visit, etc. With enough practice, my hope is that Zeus starts warming up faster, but when in doubt or needed, always go slower to set one success up for the next.

Normally I don’t do muzzle training with clients unless we have worked with the dog multiple times. I work this way as I have seen people think a muzzle stops the problem. But if you don’t train a dog the muzzle is a positive first, or put a dog in a muzzle then put them into stressful situations, it can make things worse.

In Zeus’s case, some muzzle training would be a good idea in case he is stressed or anxious when traveling or adjusting to his new home (Zeus’ family is moving soon).

The video below goes over how to introduce a muzzle to a dog in a positive way. I’d like the guardian to practice this 2+ times a day for a week before needing to use the muzzle.

I’m hoping that as Zeus has more positive meetings with strangers and practices the exercises and techniques in this session write up, that his reactive behavior slows down and eventually stops for good. But avoiding having strangers make direct eye contact with him will also help stop him from getting better at this behavior.

Dog Eye Contact Reactivity

It is not uncommon for dogs to be reactive when people make eye contact with them, especially new people. Some dogs see eye contact as a threat, especially if it’s prolonged. For dogs, direct eye contact can be interpreted as a challange. That’s why so many have dog eye contact reactivity. People dont mean to challange them, but looking directly in dogs eyes can come across that way to dogs.

In addressing dog eye contact problems, the Focus exercise can be particularly valuable, but its important to be patient with your dog, it may take a lot of practice to break them of this habit of getting upset at direct eye contact. And since people look dogs in the eye all the time, it can get retriggered easily. I told the clients to remember to work on these training lessons multiple times a week in short sessions, and always end on a positive note.

To help the guardian remember all the dog behavior tips we shared in this dog training session, including conquering Zeus’ dog eye contact dominance, we filmed a roadmap to success video that you can watch below.

Need help with your dog's eye contact problem? Click here for inhome help
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This post was written by: David Codr