To some, a dog’s stare can be quite unnerving – especially as there is a common perception that direct eye contact is a precursor to an attack. However, this is not the only reason why a dog might stare at you. Whilst it is true that prolonged eye contact is confrontational amongst dogs, these amazing animals have developed the ability to engage with humans using their eyes. Even though it goes against all their instinct as a canine, they have adapted to meet a quality that is favoured by people. It is one of the many reasons why dogs have become man’s best friend and have remained there for millennia.
Direct Eye Contact - In Dog Language
Before we look into the reasons why a family dog might stare at their owners, we should first consider what direct eye contact means in dog language. This is an especially important subject when adopting a street or rescue dog that has not grown up around humans. Dogs who have had little-to-no contact with people are unlikely to have an understanding of how beneficial and non-threatening eye contact with humans can be. They will only know what it means in dog language.
In canine communication, staring intently is usually a way of establishing a hierarchy or projecting confidence. Brief eye contact is normal when meeting for the first time. However, staring or prolonged eye contact is considered rude amongst dogs. It is a form of challenge for authority which could lead to a fight or one dog taking flight. Most dogs make brief eye contact and look away again to indicate that they are no threat. If staring does occur, it is usually because there is a valuable resource nearby that a dog does not want to give up or the dog is scared and projecting themselves.
When a human inadvertently looks too long into the eyes of a dog who is not yet accustomed to the human-dog language, it can be interpreted wrongly as a sign that the human is threatening them. Fear, confusion and survival instincts may kick in and cause a dog to become animated and possibly aggressive.
Making and breaking eye contact with a street dog that is unsure, nervous and fearful is the way forward. If this is coupled with other calming signals such as turning away slightly, yawning, and slow movements, most dogs unfamiliar with humans will also relax.
Reasons Why Your Dog Might Stare At You.
Dogs are masters when it comes to reading body language and facial expressions. They communicate with each other using subtle, almost imperceptible, movements. Until I studied dogs, I was unaware of these delicate changes that conveyed great meaning.
When dogs spend a significant amount of time around humans they watch and learn how we communicate and adapt their own communication methods to match ours. This is an understated skill that amazes me and one that has seen dogs not only survive alongside us but thrive to the point where we want to now look after and pamper them like children.
Which other species has been able to endear themselves so much to us that more of them live in our homes as a member of the family, rather than work for us?
Dogs love to feel loved, They are pack animals after all. Having the ability to gaze into our eyes can bring about a chemical reaction that induces the “love” hormone Oxytocin. This is the same chemical that is produced when mothers feed their babies and stare down at them. Dogs have quite literally made us fall in love with them.
This is a mutually beneficial feeling and goes both ways. When gazing into our eyes, a dog might very well just be enjoying that feeling that comes with a loving family, safe home, and happiness. If they are relaxed, being cuddled or just about to doze off you can be sure that this type of staring is nothing more than pure love for you and utter contentment.
Change in Schedule
Love is not the only reason our dogs stare at us. One common reason is a change in their schedule. Dogs seem to be able to have an uncanny ability to stick to a schedule. They cannot understand a clock time as we can, of course, but they do have a perception of passing time and routine. A great example of this is when owners ask me how their dog knows when the children are due home from school; telling me how they wait at the door for them or look out the window.
My greyhound Swift comes to find me at midday every weekday for his lunchtime walk. However he does not to this at the weekend. Why is this? Some schedules are set around associative learning. At the weekend my routine changes. We may wake a little later and we do not run to the tight schedule we have in the week. Swift has learnt that the walks will also be different and he won’t find me in my home office. If I am not ready at midday in the week or at a reasonable time over the weekend, I get the stare. Swift’s communication that I should be putting on my boots, grabbing his lead and heading out the door.
If you have recently changed your dog’s schedule you might find them staring at you in confusion and wondering why they are not being walked or fed or where the children are today? They could also be telling you that they need the toilet!!
Attention or Boredom
Dogs need engagement and interaction. Some dogs are a little more demanding than others but they all need to be physically and mentally stimulated or, like humans, they will become bored and frustrated. Thankfully for owners dogs sleep a lot. Most typically sleep between 14-18 hours a day. When you add that to daily walks and self-play, dogs are fairly undemanding, But, when they do want some attention and are feeling bored, you can be sure they will look at you long and hard.
Some dogs might bring you their favourite toy to throw around, some might jump up disturbing your line of vision to the TV or laptop. A few will whine or even bark, while others will just sit and simply stare at you. All will be making eye contact to try and get you to engage with them. If your dog has had some downtime recently or been sleeping and begins to give you the stink eye, you might want to think about spending a little quality time with them.
Break up their boredom with a little playtime. Even if you are super busy at least acknowledge their request and let them know you will be free in 10mins. Spending just 5 mins engaged with your dog can satisfy their need and they will go off happy again. Ignoring a dog completely could lead to more demanding behaviour and will only get worse the longer they are left. Work out how to communicate with them and you will work out how to live harmoniously and happy together.
Constantly learning and always curious....
Dogs are curious by nature and they use their eyes, like most of us, to observe and learn. When something out of the ordinary is presented to them, they are likely to watch it intently to understand what it is.
Have you ever made a funny noise and seen your dog stare at you. It was an unusual noise and not one they are used to hearing from you. By watching you, they hope to learn what that noise means and what will happen if they hear it again.
When training a dog, most trainers and owners will first establish a visual connection. If you can get a dog to look at you, the more likely it is they will then follow a taught cue. When learning a new cue, you may present an unfamiliar word such a ‘paw’ and an unfamiliar gesture such as holding out your hand. It is likely that your dog will look at the unfamiliar gesture and then back up to your eyes. Staring at you and waiting for some cue that is more familiar to them.
Understanding our Emotions.
Dogs have learnt that us humans say a lot with our eyes. Our eyes can often reveal how we are feeling and we use them to communicate non-verbally, sometimes unintentionally so. For example, most people tend to look down when embarrassed or roll their eyes when unimpressed. However, there are much more subtle ways that our eyes give away our feelings and dogs can pick up on these when they stare at us.
Anger is often easy to convey and owners tend to exaggerate their facial expressions to communicate with their dog that they are not happy. Raised eyebrows with questioning eyes might mean “excuse me, are you allowed to do that?” We communicate like this with our dogs all the time without even realising we are doing it and they respond! How amazing!
However, dogs will also look to us for direction when we do not realise it. If an unfamiliar person approaches, they look to see if our eyes are relaxed and welcoming or whether our pupils have enlarged and we are uncomfortable. When out on a walk and a dog is up ahead, they will look to us to see where we are planning to walk onto, following the direction of our gaze. Some that are more mischievous and stare over at us to see if we are watching them in case they have caught the scent of something they want to investigate.
Feedback and Comments
I hope that you have found this article interesting. I always welcome feedback, comments and shared stories. Do you have a dog that loves to stare at you? If so, do you know why or do they leave you wondering?
Maybe you are uncertain as to why your dog is staring at you and you find it unsettling. I would be more than happy to help ease any concerns. Please send any questions or feedback to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or comment below.