Staring is one of those mammalian behaviours that can have all manner of different meanings, depending who is doing the staring, what they’re staring at, and the fine nuances involved – and we rarely consider how variable the manifestations of eye contact that we make every day can be.
There is a very fine line between affording someone polite eye contact and staring at them in a challenging manner, and when it comes to dogs and how they and humans work out our eye contact with each other across the species divide, there is even more to take into account.
Direct eye contact in canine terms is often read as a challenge rather than good manners, and the height of courtesy in canine communication within many situations is averting the eyes and glancing away.
However, staring, or focusing with a direct look is something that dogs do all the time to us humans, and particularly, with their individual owners – and so working out what your dog is trying to say to you when they do this is important, to ensure that you’re both on the same page!
In this article, we will examine the various different things that it can mean it your dog is staring at you, or focusing intently on you. Read on to learn more.
If a dog is making direct, deliberate and unbroken eye contact with you and particularly if they’re not looking away in response to other stimulus or are in relatively close quarters to you and their body language is anything other that fully relaxed, this is likely a dominance display.
This may occur if your dog thinks they are the pack leader, if they’re battling for that position or if you’re dealing with a strange dog that sees you as a threat or impinging upon their territory.
Staring at a dog in return in the same way transmits the same message – that you think you are the boss – and averting your eyes gives such a dog a “win.” However, this doesn’t make staring back necessarily a good idea, particularly if the dog is not yours and you’re close together, as if the other dog does not yield, they may escalate to aggression instead.
If the dog in question is staring and tracking or following your actions with their eyes but they’re not staring directly into your eyes at the time, they’re paying all of their attention to monitoring what you’re doing. You may well have seen this in action many times, complete with head movements that look like the dog is following a tennis match, if you’re preparing food in your dog’s presence!
This same tracking motion may be displayed if you are around a strange dog who is keeping an eye on how close you get to their territory.
Direct eye contact is not usually something that dogs instigate, as it can commonly be read as a challenge and so, doing so makes most dogs uncomfortable.
However, a dog that knows you very well, has a strong bond with you, and that trusts you implicitly may stare at you (even if they’re very close to you, such as cuddled up next to you) because they love you, and are just drinking you in!
That said, you will probably find that if you return this direct eye contact yourself, your dog will immediately avert their eyes, due to the aforementioned challenge that comes from direct eye contact in dog terms.
Few things get and hold a dog’s attention more effectively than food, particularly food that you don’t appear to be preparing for the dog!
If you’re eating at the table and your dog tends to beg, they’re likely to be staring straight at you – or rather, the hand holding the food, as it journeys between your plate and your mouth.
A dog that wants to catch your attention might focus hard on you too, whether this be your own dog or a dog in a kennel at a rehoming shelter who seems to single themselves out as a viable candidate for you by means of their enthralled expression.
Dogs have large, soulful eyes that they use to great effect, and they soon learn as puppies the power that they can have over us in this respect!
Finally, one of the most common situations in which you might feel that your dog is staring at you and one that can be the most confusing and somewhat unsettling is if your dog stares at you when they’re pooping.
This is of course a behaviour that is well outside of the human frame of reference – we don’t poop in front of other people and if for some reason we had to, we’d probably be doing everything possible to avoid looking at each other – but it makes perfect sense to your dog.
A dog that is pooping is committed to the activity and cannot really leap up and run off or defend themselves whilst doing so if a threat appeared. Ergo they are placing their trust in you as their owner and pack leader to keep a look out for potential threats and protect them from harm.
Staying within your dog’s line of sight whilst they poop will reassure them – but you needn’t stare back, and may turn away if you wish, showing your dog that you are “on the lookout” and taking your guarding duties seriously!