Why Does My Dog Stare At Me?

helloBARK! staff
By helloBARK! staff
Updated on October 04, 2020
Expert Content

Why does your dog stare at you?

It’s an age-old question you’ve probably asked yourself many times, whether you’re relaxing on the sofa, cooking in the kitchen or working on your laptop.

We can forge a deep bond with our canine companions throughout their lifespans, but it can be tricky to figure out the body language of dogs, especially the subtle signals.

We’ve asked eight experts: “why does my dog stare at me?”

They Are Letting You Know They Care So Deeply About You

Dr. Shadi Ireifej DVM DACVS, chief medical officer at vettriage.com

I would divide a dog staring at you, the pet owner, into two different broad categories. The first category is pathology or disease. The second category is behavioral, psychological or emotional. Thankfully the most common reason that a dog will stare at you is the latter; behavioral.

Pathology

Pathologic reasons that have been reported in dogs in the medical literature and in my own experiences as a board certified veterinary surgeon, a veterinarian of over 14 years experience include gastrointestinal diseases, neurologic disease and various metabolic or nutritional diseases. Out of these categories neurologic disease is by far in my opinion and in the medical literature as the most common cause of pathologic reasons as to why a dog would stare at you (or stare at one point in general).

Behavioral

The more common category, behavioral, can be divided further into different behavioral reasons why a dog would stare at you. I would categorize the three reasons as dominance confirmation, anticipation or engagement. Overall, we would refer to this type of behavior as the mutual gaze, which is defined as a dog being in direct eye communication with another individual, usually another dog or, for the purpose of this discussion, a human being.

The dominant aspect the dominance aspect of the discussion refers to a dog gazing at you with the primary goal of figuring out who is dominant. In that situation, a submissive individual would inherently look away, to the floor or to the sky/ceiling upon receiving this mutual gaze. Likewise the dominant individual in the mutual gaze would not look away. This sets up the hierarchy in “the pack”.

The anticipatory cause of the mutual gaze is to be thought to be as described; the dog is trying to anticipate your next move, and in this scenario, in a typical dog household, the next move may be going for a walk, going for a car ride, receiving a treat and so forth.

Finally, the last behavioral reason why dogs stare in this mutual gaze is the engaging aspect; meaning that the dog is acting, with their eyes, as they would with barking or pawing at you, or jumping on you, to try and entice you to engage them.

Conclusion

Now out of these behavioral reasons as to why a dog would stare at you in a mutual gaze, I believe the latter two of the behavioral reasons are most common, especially with a dog that is well socialized. They are letting you know they care so deeply about you that the moment you engage them in return with a mutual gaze it either means they have your attention (engagement) or they are ready for the next adventure in life (anticipatory).

Ask Yourself What Is The Function Of Their Behavior?

Joan Hunter Mayer, certified professional dog trainer and owner of The Inquisitive Canine

All behavior has a function — to either gain something, to escape something, or make something go away. Staring is a form of communication.

When a dog stares at you, consider these principles. They might be staring at you in hopes of you giving them something – maybe a juicy piece of steak from your plate, or to open the door, or throw the toy.

Maybe they’re chewing on their favorite bone and they give you a hard stare telling you to back off! It could be a number of reasons.

The best thing to do when your dog stares at you is to ask yourself, what is the function of his or her behavior? Do they want me to give them something? Or, do they want me to go away?

Whatever it is, the best thing for us to do is to “listen” to what they are saying and respect it.

This is a sign that your dog can be very easily trained

Dr. Tim Shu, CEO and Founder of Vet CBD Hemp

Dogs are very loving animals and they can sometimes show their affection by
staring at you and be enchanted by your beauty.

Staring may be the best form of communication for dogs.

If your dog is staring at you profoundly you should take advantage of this as this is a sign that your dog can be very easily trained so, take advantage of this and get your dog properly trained.

Whippets (Photo: Adobe Stock)


Whippets (Photo: Adobe Stock)

The ‘Love Hormone’ Is Released

Susan Nilson, certified animal training and behaviour consultant, editor of Barks From The Guild

While staring in the animal world is often a hostile behavior (hence the fact that professional dog trainers encourage ‘soft’ rather than ‘hard’ eye contact when working with a dog to avoid being perceived as a threat – especially if the dog is fearful), there is also research to indicate that when a dog stares into their human’s eyes there is an increase in the hormone oxytocin, commonly known as the ‘love hormone.’

In a paper published in Science in 2015, Nagasawa et al. concluded that mutual gazing, which is, after all, a very human-like means of communication, may have also developed between dogs and humans as they coevolved.

In humans, oxytocin is particularly significant due to the role it plays in social bonding and emotional attachment between mothers and infants and partners who are romantically involved.

In the same way, dogs gazing at their humans may indicate a way of communicating social attachment and increasing the mutual bond.

Eye Contact Is Not A Natural Instinct For Dogs

Dr. Gary Richter, veterinary health expert with Rover.com and former winner of America’s Favorite Veterinarian

Just like humans gaze into each other’s eyes to show love and affection, so does your dog. In fact, one study showed that the ‘cuddle hormone’ oxytocin increases in both humans and dogs when they exchange a loving gaze.

This is not the case for when dogs stare at each other though – you’ll more frequently see dogs turning away from each other in order to avoid eye contact as sustained staring can be a sign of aggression.

Prolonged eye contact rarely occurs in friendly exchanges between two dogs. Staring can also be a sign of aggression or dominance in some dogs.

People should always be cautious with dogs they don’t know and never approach a strange dog, especially if they are showing any signs of apprehension or unease.

Do different types of stares mean different things? For example, if they look sad, if their head is tilted while they stare, if they look scared, or if they look mad.

Eye contact is not a natural instinct for dogs, but they often learn that eye contact with people can result in treats and attention. Dogs will often stare when you’re doing something that peeks their curiosity – like grilling up something that smells tasty or opening the cupboard where the treats are – to see if they can get in on the fun too.

The head tilt that most dogs do when they are staring intently has a lot to do with a dog’s ability to empathize.

Dogs are able to read our body language and vocal tones so when they tilt their heads they are trying their best to understand what you’re trying to tell them. They could also just be tilting their head to hear and see you better as you speak to them.

Alaskan Klee Kai Skye and Copper (Photo: Albalone Pet Studio / Instagram)

Alaskan Klee Kai Skye and Copper (Photo: Albalone Pet Studio / Instagram)

Your Dog Stares At You Because It Feels Good!

Jen Jones, professional dog trainer and behavior specialist, founder of Your Dog Advisor

Dogs stare at their owners for a few different reasons, but perhaps my favorite is to seek out attention and affection. Many studies have proven that dogs are one of the only other species of animal that seeks out eye contact with humans, and when they do their oxytocin (the love hormone) levels skyrocket.

So, when dogs are looking deep into your eyes, they are doing so because it feels good to them. It provides them with the same feeling you likely feel when you look back into their eyes, or when you look into the eyes of someone you love and care for deeply. However, there are other reasons for dogs to stare.

Some will stare while you’re eating, and this is a version of begging, especially if they know not to whine or yap at dinner time. They will often stare at you and then your food, then back to you. In this case, they are clearly saying share with me! This is the same if you have a treat, a toy, or something else your dog wants to get a hold of.

Dogs also stare when they are trying to understand what you want from them. Have you ever noticed your dog cocking his head while you speak to him? In this case, your dog is working hard to understand what you are saying so he can please you. However, there are times when dogs stare as a sign of fear, guarding or aggression.

This is often accompanied by other signs and body language, including whale eye (their eyes are large and the whites of their eyes are showing), raised hackles on their back, a stiffening of the body, and an erect tail.

If a dog is staring at you like this, refrain from making eye contact and turn to the side (not completely away, but just to the side) and begin backing away from the dog. This is a dog who is telling you to back off immediately.

They’re Trying To Tell You What They Want

Sara Ochoa, small animal and exotic veterinarian in Texas and a veterinary consultant for doglab.com

There are many reasons that your dog is staring at you. Most of the time they are trying to tell you something. This may be that they want food or need to go outside to potty.

Many times they will try to tell you what they are wanting. They will bark or try to get you to follow them to what they want to tell you.

Chow Chow (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Chow Chow (Photo: Adobe Stock)

A Sign Of A Strong Bond

Wesley Oaks, former veterinary assistant and founder of Oddly Cute Pets

When your dog stares at you it is almost always because they’re displaying fondness and friendship.

Some dog owners find the behavior strange but it’s a good sign indicating a strong bond between the two of you.