Why Does Your Dog Stare at You?

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Your dog may follow you everywhere like a quiet shadow. If your dog has a favorite spot or bed, then maybe you feel their eyes follow you wherever you go. Sometimes you look up from your phone and find your dog looking right at you. Eye contact is an important part of a dog’s language. While you can’t always tell exactly what it means when your dog is staring at you, you may be able to contextualize their eye contact to get closer to understanding what they are trying to communicate.

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What does eye contact mean to dogs?

Often for humans, direct and mutual eye contact is an assertive and powerful way of communication. It can also mean intimacy, or the strengthening of a bond. In humans, prolonged eye contact releases a hormone called oxytocin, also commonly known as the “cuddle” or “love” hormone. Our canine friends are not so different. Studies [1] have found that when a dog and human look into each other's eyes, the same hormone oxytocin is released in both parties, creating a chemically backed bonding experience. Scientifically, this means that humans and dogs share a similar neurochemical system and relationship - a common body language. In simple terms, offering eye contact means your dog is seeking to connect and communicate with you.

Negative/Aggressive Eye Contact

In the dog world, eye contact can also be a sign of aggression. Two dogs in tension will stare at each other until one backs down. If a dog is threatened by your presence, they may try to “stare you down.” In a scenario like this, staring back only further aggravates the dog, who will perceive your eye contact as a challenge. It is fairly obvious when eye contact is a negative warning - dogs will exhibit additional behaviors that scream “leave me alone!” such as growling, baring teeth, snapping, alert ears, tail standing tall, stiff body. If a dog is exhibiting eye contact alongside these behaviors, turn your body away, do not offer eye contact, and do not run away or you may trigger their chase instinct. Instead, just calmly and slowly walk away.

Knowing what eye contact means to dogs makes it all the more special when you notice your own dog offering you eye contact. A dog who offers you eye contact is telling you that they trust you. They are offering vulnerability and openness to whatever you have to offer. Here are some things your staring puppy may be trying to tell you.

Give Me Attention!

Most commonly, your dog will stare at you to let you know they still exist. Taking the time out to give them a few pats or a couple tosses of their ball will mean the world to them. If you are busy reading or working at one spot, allow them to sit near you so that they feel included.

Give Me Direction! I’m Confused!

Eye contact is a key tool for dog training. Trainers encourage owners to establish a good line of communication with their dogs through eye contact. A dog who offers eye contact willingly is a dog who is ready to listen. A dog who learns that looking at their human means something good is coming will often seek eye contact when they are in unfamiliar situations. They are telling you that they trust your direction and are willing to follow your lead.

I Want Something!

Eye contact accompanied by whining at the door likely means they want to go outside. Eye contact accompanied by a toy in their mouth or a wagging tail probably means they want to play. If you’re eating and your pup stares, they probably want you to share.

Something is Wrong!

Sometimes, your dog may stare at you to let you know that something is not quite right. Perhaps they are not feeling well - it could be something as simple as a tummy upset to more severe conditions that require a trip to the emergency vet. In senior dogs, staring for a long period of time at you or something else may be a sign of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction, which is essentially a canine version of Alzheimer’s disease. Look for other symptoms such as: failure to respond to their name, getting lost or confused with familiar spaces or routines, trembling, aimless wandering, whining.

I Love You!

If you are spending quality time with your dog, or if at the end of a long day you are sitting with your dog and they stare at you for a long time, they are simply telling you that they love you! Their long gaze is a sign of affection and trust.

Deciphering their Language

More often than not, your dog stares at you because they are trying to tell you something. Taking the time out of your daily life to spend quality time with your dog allows you to be more in tune with their behavior and desires. Dogs thrive in a routine bound lifestyle, as it provides them with stability and a sense of safety. Any responsible dog owner can tell what the slightest change in behavior means for their dog. The more in tune you are with your dog’s behavior and needs, the better you can use eye contact and contextual clues to understand what they are saying.