No matter how much one loves dogs and adores getting attention from them, there are some situations and dogs that can leave anyone thinking, “Enough is enough!” Some dogs are such exuberant greeters that everyone who greets them wants to know how to avoid being the object of such Marmaduke-like attention in the future. Other dogs are so persistent that even the most ardent dog lovers may wish to be left alone at some point.
Luckily, dogs have a social signal that means, translated roughly from the canine, “I’m not available for social interaction right now.” This useful social signal is called a “look away” and it is relatively easy for humans to imitate well enough to be understood by dogs. In order to let a dog know that you are unavailable at that moment, all you have to do is turn your head so that your face is pointed in the direction opposite the dog’s location and point your chin upward. It is very important that you look up rather than down, as this slight difference in execution results in a large difference in meaning. With your chin up, you are telling the dog that you will not be able to interact at this time. With your chin down, you are expressing deference to your dog. Although it is not technically part of the signal, I find it useful to cross my arms as I look away. This keeps me from reaching for the dog, and generally presents a more closed off body posture, which can be helpful. Typically, dogs in most situations respond to a look away signal, even from a human, by walking away and looking elsewhere for something to do or someone else to do it with.
Using a look away to communicate with a dog is most effective if the signal is clear. When trying to communicate across species, attempting to be subtle is counterproductive. The best way I can describe the clarity required when using this signal is to consider junior high school age adolescents. When they assert that they are not paying attention to you or to one of their classmates, they turn their heads up and away, sometimes quite dramatically, and might even add the phrase, “I’m NOT talking to you!” Nobody can fault their directness and clarity, and certainly nobody can accuse them of sending an ambiguous message. We can learn from their example: Commit to the signal completely in order to be understood.
No matter how obvious you are with your signal, some dogs will not get your message right away. This is particularly common among young, energetic dogs who have not had a lot of boundaries set for them either by other dogs or by people. If a dog responds to a look away by coming around to the side you are now facing and continuing to solicit your attention, simply do a look away in the other direction, away from where the dog has moved. It can take three or more look aways to deter the most enthusiastic dog, especially if that dog is accustomed to being able to get your attention any time it’s desired. Adult dogs commonly give multiple look aways when puppies are relentlessly pestering them. Sometimes, the puppy moves around so fast and the adult dog does repeated look aways in such rapid succession that it looks as though the adult’s head is bobbing and moving around almost randomly.
While the look away signal is useful for anyone faced with a particularly spirited canine, it has a special place in the hearts of those among us who do not much care for dogs. Because people who are not interested in dogs often find themselves the object of dogs’ unwanted affection, look aways are a welcome skill for those who, despite otherwise being lovely people, aren’t that into dogs. (I feel no shame in admitting that I myself have several close relatives who fit this description.) Perhaps if more of the non-dog-loving set knew this signal, there would be fewer complaints about our dogs’ enthusiasm toward them.
--- Karen B. London