Damn Your Eyes
What I Learned From my Dog About Power in Relationships
“With that look I know so well
I fall completely under your spell
Damn your eyes”
— Etta James
I was taken by this fetching Beagle/hound mix one Sunday morning when walking into a pet store with my daughter; we were there to get shavings for her mouse. In a closed-off corner, we saw a litter of puppies that were up for adoption. They were specked and adorable. We were told they’d been rescued with their mom from under a porch in Tennessee. They were transported all the way up here to Maine, to my stomping ground, where I’d been living happily ‘without a dog. Yet, as these things go, it happened that I’d actually been pining for a puppy for months. I yearned for a nice mutt (fewer health problems) who would be my best pal when my daughters were at their father’s for half the week. He’d be the first dog that was really mine. And on that Sunday, I found him. He came over to the fence to see us; I picked him up and held him against my coat – he was warm and floppy and rotund. He chewed gently on my zipper. “I’m going to take you home,” I whispered to him.
Many years ago, a different seductive guy – this one human – charmed me. I’ll call him Caleb. The relationship began innocently; he was a friendly man who easily engaged me in conversation. He laughed at my jokes. I was at a lonely point in my life, and it didn’t take long for me to get hooked on the extra attention. Soon we were having coffee together, sharing secrets, trying not to talk about the fact that he had a girlfriend he was devoted to. (Or so he said – how devoted could he really be?) One of the ways I could tell that the connection was deepening was eye contact. Caleb had this way of locking his hazel eyes with mine, and then holding my gaze until I looked away. I always looked away first; the feeling was too intense. But even in the looking away, there was a thrill — he cared enough to push the boundary. He made me feel important. Maybe he would leave his girlfriend? You can surely predict the outcome. He didn’t leave the girlfriend. Tears ensued, many tears.
The issue of eye contact recently resurfaced when I was struggling with the new puppy. I had named him Finch, and he had entered our lives like a bullet train. After his first sleepy day, he’d assumed his real personality. It wasn’t enough that Finch squealed and yipped us awake every morning, dribbled pee everywhere, and pulled at our pant legs as we walked about the house. To our dismay, he also began growling and trying to bite us. He’d get grumpy and tired, and then when one of my daughters tried to pick him up, he would snap at her. And, on a grim Sunday morning, his teeth caught my daughter’s lip and made her bleed. I had such regrets. Why had I so impulsively adopted him? To my credit, the seriousness of Finch’s behavior pushed me to hire a trainer. I also sent him to a wonderful “Dog Daycare,” where the owner gave me a crash course in managing my difficult puppy. I am so thankful to this woman. She saved my dog from being returned; she saved me from having to disappoint my daughters by getting rid of the dog. I started to think of her as the Puppy Whisperer. But what does all this have to do with that seductive man? Read on. The Puppy Whisperer gave me a list of behaviors I should institute at home in order to convince Finch that I was, in fact, the Alpha. The list included rules I never would have come up with on my own:
- don’t let your dog enter a doorway before you,
- don’t let him eat before you (the pack leader always eats first),
- and when you enter a room where the dog is, ignore him for a few minutes.
Wow, who would have thought? I was new at this, and clearly I had a lot to learn. Then I read this rule, which really surprised me: If you establish eye contact with the dog, the dog must avert his gaze first. If you look away first, you are telling the dog that he is in the higher position. Wait. What?
Eye Contact – Love or Dominance?
My mind was pulled back to that coffee shop, where I sat across from Caleb. After he had won the gazing contest, I’d looked down at my shoes. Despite my meek display, I was relieved that he was running the show. I could let him decide what we were doing, how long we were going to keep the flirtation going, taking the pressure off me. I learned to wait for his heart-stopping eye contact. (Later I waited for him to call, to acknowledge me in public, and to stop disappointing me. And then, of course, came the tears.) When I was flirting with Caleb, I had believed that those long drawn-out gazes signaled the beginnings of love. Most of us have experienced this. You start to fall for someone and find that the two of you can just stare into each other’s eyes endlessly, a long drink of water for the parched. Now, thanks to my puppy, I see the distinction: Caleb was trying to dominate me. The gazing wasn’t mutual – one of us was feeling conquered. Then, when Caleb demonstrated his shocking ability to turn himself off and on at his own discretion, never heeding any of my requests, I realized that the relationship was all about power. Caleb had chosen me as someone he could control. Love had nothing to do with it.
What Does This Have to Do with My Beagle, Again?
It’s different with dogs, though. Canines seem to need the security of an Alpha leader, and this security leads to love. Healthy love. The dog knows his place and the owner is safe and free to enjoy her pet. So I began to be the queen of my dog’s life. I taught Finch to sit and wait as I walked through the door, and I ate right in front of his hungry face before giving him his dinner. And I began to stare him down. To my amazement, he settled in and stopped being so intimidating. Happily, I am through with the likes of Caleb. These days I prefer humans who don’t try to dominate. And I take delight in my puppy, now that he’s been trained to submit appropriately to my gaze.
Author: Jennifer Noel, LCSW, is a psychotherapist, mother, writer, and owner of a rescue dog.