By: Sara Ondrako, Certified Canine Behavior Professional
Dogs have an uncanny ability to communicate with us through various means, and one of the most intriguing behaviors they exhibit is their tendency to gaze into the eyes of other humans. If you've ever wondered why your dog locks eyes with you, you're in the right place. We're going to dive into the fascinating dog behavior involving canine stares, shedding light on their significance and what they might be trying to convey to the recipient.
The Language of Eyes: How Dogs Communicate Through Stares
Dogs practice a lot of non-verbal communication — from how they hold their body, their movements, and even their head and tail positions. Eye contact has a special place in a dog's various forms of non-verbal communication. Dogs use it to convey a wide range of emotions and intentions. Understanding what some of those stares may mean can help you better connect with your canine counterpart. While it is only one piece of the body language puzzle, dogs rely on visual cues to interact with their human friends — and even foes.
Different Types of Stares and Their Meanings
Not all stares are created equal. From the loving gaze to the side eye and the hard stare, dogs employ a spectrum of looks to convey their emotions and intentions. Here are the most common reasons your dog may stare at you, another family member, or a stranger.
Seeking Attention and Affection: A Dog's Way of Connecting
When your dog stares at you, it might mean something as simple as, "Pay attention to me!" They crave your love and affection and use their eyes to express this desire. They may need to go potty, want to play with you, be looking to cuddle, or want you to engage in one of their favorite activities.
Their expression in the moment can help you determine the reason when put into context. Are they running to the door with wide eyes ("Mom — I gotta go out and poop!")? Are they nudging you from under your desk and staring up with perfect puppy eyes five minutes after their regularly scheduled feeding time? Dogs learn to do what works, and when they get the response they're looking for from you, that's a reinforcing win for them!
Like humans, dogs use eye contact to build a solid emotional connection with their pet parents. Mutual gazes are a sign of trust and affection, which can help establish and strengthen bonds when shared with those who bring them comfort and security. These types of stares are a form of endearment in which pet parents can reinforce that togetherness and trust.
Feeling Challenged or Being Challenging
When feeling the need to be defensive or offensive, dogs can convey the intention to aggress through a frontal aggressive stare or even a side stare, also known as "side-eye." When combined with body language, dog owners can tell the difference. For example, a hard stare, stiff posture, the fur between the shoulder blades standing up (piloerection), erect ears, and a tall stance all signify aggression. This display can indicate a dog feels confident enough to challenge another person or animal, especially if no appropriate response is received by the animal or person they are attempting to communicate with.
With defensive language, a dog feels threatened and often tries to protect themselves or a resource such as food, people, or toys. With fear and resource guarding, their body language shifts, making themselves smaller, turning their head slightly away to give the side-eye or side-stare. It is generally meant to ask someone to please back off. You may see a lip curl or showing some teeth with a low growl, as well as a snap and lunge if the person or other animal does not give the dog more space.
One thing to note about making eye contact with or staring at a dog is that being unfamiliar can cause a dog to feel threatened. Even your most loving attempt at a connecting gaze with a new pup can make them uncomfortable since those loving gazes are reserved for people they've bonded with. Avoid eye contact with new pups and save those loving gazes for your dog.
Emotional Expressions: What Your Dog's Stares May Tell You
A State of Happiness
When your pup points those gazers toward a known friend and offers a body wiggle and a tail wag, this indicates excitement and happiness. In this instance, the eyes are soft and regular while staring at the friend in the distance or approaching. Often, the mouth displays a soft smile, and the face is relaxed.
A State of Stress
A stare of anxiety, discomfort, or fear will differ significantly from stares of happiness and contentment. For example, you can generally see more white in the dog's eyes due to widening them, creating visible tension in the face and around the eyes. This wide-eyed look is known as whale-eye. If you see this, it's a good indication that your furry friend needs to be moved away from what concerns them and to a place of comfort and security.
The Power of Food and Anticipation
Many dogs have mastered the art of begging through their stares, especially during mealtime. They pick up on mealtime schedules and often wait in anticipation before you even sit down to eat. Staring up from under the table is their way of saying, "Please share that tasty treat!" Dog breeds of all kinds engage in staring behavior because it works! From the hopeful puppy-dog eyes to the persistent stare-down that can make some people a bit uncomfortable, dogs employ various tactics to persuade you to share your meal or offer a tasty tidbit.
You may also notice your dog staring at you while you prepare their food bowl in anticipation of their breakfast or dinner. Often, they like keeping their eyes on your every move while prepping their perfect meal.
Food and Training
In addition to tactics to get the food to fall, dogs also quickly learn the association between behaviors their humans want to see repeated and food rewards. This is one of the reasons that using food or treats in dog training is so common. Dogs love food and readily offer behaviors to get more of it once they figure out the game you are playing to get a specific behavior or skill.
Using food in training is also a great form of enrichment, so long as the dog is getting to make a choice and the food reward swiftly follows the dog's choice. If your dog starts staring at you and the drool pool begins to flow as you grab your treat pouch for a training sesh, your pup is saying, "I'm ready!"
Reading Your Intentions: Dogs' Ability to Detect Human Emotions
Dogs are remarkably attuned to human emotions and can often detect changes in our body language and facial expressions. Often, dogs spend a lot of time watching us, which may seem like staring, but this is a form of learning for them. They observe to learn about the people around them through human body language and even their facial expressions to understand the intentions of their human counterparts better.
Mirror Neurons and Their Role in Understanding Human Emotions
Mirror neurons are specialized cells in the brain that are activated when a dog (or person) observes an action by a person, and the emotion behind that action is felt by the observer and, therefore, mirrored. For example, when you feel excited and smile, your dog's mirror neurons may fire up, and they can, in turn, also feel excited. Another example would be when a person yawns, and someone close by observing them also yawns. Their mirror neurons are at work!
So why are these little specialized cells important in relationships between dogs and humans? Empathy. Empathy is the core of deep and meaningful relationships. It's no secret that many people have intense and meaningful relationships with their dogs, so much so that they grieve their loss harder than the loss of human family members. While some believe a dog mirroring our behaviors or responding when we are in distress is simply a form of emotional contagion, research shows us that dogs can be more than merely mimicking our behaviors; their physiology changes in response to our emotions.
Bonding and Trust: Staring as a Sign of Attachment
There's no love like that of a mother to their child — kind of.
Interestingly, studies have shown that the pituitary gland releases oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone," after a mother interacts with their dog as it does when interacting with her child. This neurohormone is involved in maternal attachment and bonding. A loving gaze can strengthen the emotional connection, supporting attachment theory. This evolutionary phenomenon developed over centuries between humans and dogs.
Attachment Theory refers to the impact that a close and emotional relationship has on another being. Naturally, with shared moments of eye contact and spending quality one-on-one time together, a stronger bond and more profound sense of trust can, in theory, be built.
Attachment theory can also negatively affect our canine companions. Your dog can pick up on your emotional cues through your expressions and body language, whether you're happy, sad, or stressed. If a person is often in distress or experiencing trauma, their best furry friend may also experience these hardships emotionally.
Curiosity and Observation: Dogs' Innate Inquisitiveness
Dogs are curious creatures by nature. Stares can stem from their desire to experience and understand the world around them. This is much like we as humans may interrupt our walk to scratch our curiosity itch when passing a group of people seemingly interested in something happening. We become curious, too, even if only momentarily.
They are keen observers of their human family's actions and routines, often watching simple goings-on with rapt attention. Watching what they watch — what sparks those stares — can allow you to provide more of what your dog loves.
Health and Behavioral Considerations
Learning, connecting, observing, emotional cognition and even mimicking are all attached to our doe-eyed doggie stares. Still, there are also more inconspicuous and troublesome reasons that our canine companions stare. The more we know about these physical and mental conditions, the faster we can help provide relief for our furry friends.
Changes in Staring Behavior
Any change in your dog's staring behavior could indicate an underlying health issue or discomfort. If you notice your dog staring into a corner and seeming confused or staring at a particular object for more extended periods than usual, consult your veterinarian. They could be experiencing vision loss or discomfort in one or both eyes.
Another common reason for staring changes is Canine Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. This brain disorder affects many older dogs and often goes undiagnosed when neurons in the brain begin to die off or degrade. While there is no cure, there are many interventions a worried pet parent can implement to help slow this process. If you have concerns your pup may be experiencing Cognitive Dysfunction, seek the help of a Veterinary Behaviorist or Certified Dog Behavior Consultant for a treatment plan.
Consulting a Veterinarian or Animal Behaviorist: If you're worried about your dog's behavior or health, it's crucial to seek professional advice from a veterinarian or animal behaviorist.
The Connection Between You and Your Dog
Your dog's eyes are a multifaceted communication tool that reflects their emotions, desires, and curiosity. Paying attention to your furry friend's eyes and their meaning is an essential part of pet care that helps you deepen your bond, understand their needs, and appreciate your unique connection.
The next time your pup locks eyes with someone or something else, remember the context of their body with that gaze to help you decipher what your dog is feeling — curiosity, fear, excitement, anticipation of food. The next time your dog locks eyes with you, take a moment to reciprocate the gesture and revel in the silent conversation between you and your beloved pooch.