Why Does My Dog Stare At Me?
By Dr. Carly I. O'Malley June 13, 2020
Dogs and humans have a close bond that started approximately 20,000-40,000 years ago (Botigué et al., 2017). It has been suggested that dogs and humans co-evolved together, with each species gaining benefits from living around or with the other (VonHoldt & Driscoll, 2016). As a result of this long history, dogs and humans can understand each other very well. Dogs have a keen ability to decipher human body language (Riedel et al., 2008). One of the key human behavior traits dogs have picked up on is staring, or gazing. You may notice that your dog spends a lot of time simply staring at you. In this article, we will discuss why that is.
Why Does My Dog Stare At Me?
The relationship between humans and dogs is similar to the relationship between a human parent and child. Dogs have learned human social communication cues from this unique relationship, one of which is staring. The primary role of staring is communication. Staring can also be a sign of aggression, predatory drive, or illness.
To understand the reason behind a dog’s stare, it is important to take the situation into context, your relationship with the dog, and their overall body language. Understanding how your dog communicates with you will help strengthen your bond.
What Are Dogs Trying to Communicate When They Stare At You?
In many species of animals including wild canids, staring is considered a threatening or aggressive gesture. In humans, staring into each other’s eyes is an important part of our social communication, and is often used in close, intimate relationships such as between a parent and child. When two humans gaze into each other’s eyes, oxytocin is released. Oxytocin is the hormone responsible for social bonding and feelings of love (Nagasawa et al., 2015). If you have a close relationship with your dog, you may find yourself frequently staring into the eyes of your canine companion. If your dog frequently stares at you, they may be trying to communicate with you, either by asking you for something or to observe you to understand you better.
To fully understand what your dog is communicating when they stare at you, it is important to consider their entire body language. While mutual gazing is a behavior seen between dogs and humans as a result of trust, a dog staring at you can have negative meanings as well. Dogs may stare at you when they are feeling defensive or frightened. A hard stare is often seen before an attack. This is when a dog’s eyes and the rest of its body are tense and pointed towards the person or animal they will be aggressive towards. This body language may accompany a growl or other threatening behavior or vocalization. A dog may also stare at you when they are feeling scared or threatened. In this scenario, the dog’s eyes will likely be wide, and their body will be cowering away from you. If you see a dog staring at you and you suspect they are feeling defensive or scared, it’s best to avert your gaze and back away slowly.
What Situations Will Make A Dog More Likely To Stare At You?
There are certain situations where your dog may be most likely to stare at you. Here are some of those common situations and possible explanations for why your dog does it.
- Why Does My Dog Stare At Me When I Eat?
Dogs are scavengers who used to beg for scraps around our human settlements. Even in recent history, dogs were fed human scraps. Nowadays, it’s often frowned upon to feed your dog human food or to let them beg for food. However, that does not stop this ingrained behavior. If your dog is staring at you while you eat, they want some of your food. If you are a sucker for those big puppy eyes and frequently give in, this will only make the behavior worse.
- Why Does My Dog Stare At Me When I Sleep?
If you have ever woken up to your dog sitting nearby and staring at you, then it may be startling. But no need to be alarmed though, since your dog is likely just waiting patiently for you to get up. Maybe they know your routine and are anticipating you waking up at a certain time to let them out and feed them. Maybe they know after a nap, you bring them for a walk. Either way, your dog is waiting to hang out with you.
- Why Does My Dog Stare At Me When I Pet Them?
Mutual gazing is a social bonding tool used between dogs and humans. If your dog gazes up at you while you are petting them, they are showing you how much you mean to them and how much they trust you. However, it is important to take body language into consideration here. Some dogs may stare at someone petting them because they are uncomfortable and trying to appease you. A happy dog will be calm and relaxed while you pet them and have soft eyes while staring at you. They may also slowly blink their eyes. A dog that is uncomfortable will be more tense and rigid in their body language and may blink quickly and frequently avert their eyes away from you and/or lick their lips.
- Why Does My Dog Stare At Me When They Poop?
Your dog looks to you for protection, even when they are doing their business. Pooping posture puts dogs in a vulnerable position. In wild dog packs, dogs will be on guard while others eliminate to protect each other from predators. When your dog poops, they stare at you to ensure you are keeping watch and are ready to protect them. This also may be why your dog follows you into the bathroom while you do your business. They are just trying to keep you safe while you are vulnerable.
- What Other Things Do Dogs Stare At And Why?
Dogs tend to direct their senses to things they are paying attention to. If a dog is staring at another animal, they may be feeling playful, curious, or ready to chase a prey item. Dogs will often stare at squirrels or rabbits before they ambush to hunt them. This allows them to keep the prey in their sights and get ready to act.
Should You Have A Staring Contest With Your Dog?
Staring at a dog is generally not recommended. Since staring is a threating gesture in dogs, you could make them feel defensive or frightened. Of course, if you have a strong bond with your dog, you may occasionally engage in mutual gazing or even stare at them while they stare at you. You know your dog best. But pay attention to the rest of your dog’s body language to better understand if they are enjoying the staring games or not. If you are interacting with a dog you are not familiar with, it is best not to stare for long periods of time. Avert your eyes frequently. You can also blink and lick your lips to indicate that you are not a threat.
When To Take Your Dog To The Vet (e.g. “empty stare”)?
If your dog frequently seems to be staring at nothing, this may be a cause for concern. As dogs age, they may lose eyesight or cognitive abilities, which may cause them to stare. Bringing your dog for regular checkups, especially as they age, can help catch some of these issues early on and allow you to take measures to provide comfort.
The primary reason dogs stare at humans is to communicate with them, whether it is to communicate positive emotions, like love and trust, or negative emotions, like aggression and fear. To fully understand the meaning behind your dog’s gaze, pay attention to the rest of the dog’s body language. A dog that is happy and trusting will have relaxed or playful body language, while dogs feeling defensive or frightened will have tense body language. Staring may also be a sign that your dog is losing its senses or cognitive function, which can occur as dog’s age. While it is OK to participate in mutual gazing with your dog to show your affection, it is generally not recommended to stare at a dog hard in the eyes, especially not a dog you are unfamiliar with.
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Nagasawa, M., Mitsui, S., En, S., Ohtani, N., Ohta, M., Sakuma, Y., Onaka, T., Mogi, K., and T.Kikusui. 2015. Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds. Science 348(6232):333-336.
Riedel, J., Schumann, K., Kaminski, J., Call, J., and M. Tomasello. 2008. The early ontogeny of human-dog communication. Animal Behaviour 75:1003-1014.
VonHoldt, B.M. and C.A. Driscoll. 2016. Origins of the dog: Genetic insights into dog domestication. In J. Serpell (Ed), The Domestic Dog: Its Evolution, Behavior and Interactions with People (p. 22-41). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.