The other day I visited a customer with a truly very sweet little dog. She could walk off leash nearly everywhere as she would mostly stay with her owner anyway. She “checked in” (looked at the owner) quite often and would go to her for support whenever she felt a little insecure about things, for example big dogs passing. There was clearly a lot of trust and connection in this relationship. As a behaviorist I don’t experience such a dreamy picture too often, and I was beginning to wonder why I had received a call for help. It turned out that the dog, however marvelous she was, did not cope well home alone. The close bond the owner and dog shared had a huge downside, and this was that the dog was too dependent on the owner(s) to cope well alone.
There is a huge emphasize in modern dog training on eye contact. There are tons of articles and video tutorials on how to get your dog to focus on YOU, instead of on the distractions around, and how to get them to check in with you as much as possible. Such exercises have value as it’s very helpful to be able to win your dogs attention when needed. There is one huge downside though and that is that you’re creating a very dependent dog. A dog that looks at you whenever he isn’t sure about something, instead of using his natural behavior to solve things and learn from them accordingly. These dogs often don’t develop the confidence they need in life to cope on their own.
We must find a middle ground in my opinion. Yes, practice recalls to win your dogs attention when necessary, but also give him the opportunities to practice his natural behavior and learn from his mistakes. Let your dog sniff, let him make his own choices where possible and stimulate his curiosity and independence. Build your dogs confidence instead of having him rely on you for everything. This way your dog will continue to feel good also if you leave him on his own devices.