Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched? When you’ve got a dog in the house, you’ve probably found that your furry friend spends a weird amount of time staring at you, sometimes unsettlingly intently! You’ve probably looked up from your dinner and straight into your hound’s eyes and wondered “why does my dog stare at me so much?”.
There are a few reasons why your dog might be staring at you, but it all boils down to it being a form of communication. So what’s going on in your hound’s head when they sit staring at you?
Dogs have evolved alongside humans for thousands of years, and they’ve become brilliant at reading our body language and facial expressions. So if your dog is staring at you, they might just be trying to read your expression and see how you’re feeling.
This also links to a dog’s habit of watching humans for information and to anticipate what you’re going to do next. If you look angry, they might wait to see if they should give you some space. Or if you’re happy, they might stare at you to judge if you’re in a good mood and likely to play with them.
Your dog might be looking at you to try and read your emotions and figure out what you want them to do because they’re confused. In fact, if your dog is staring at you with a tilted head then odds are they’re not sure what to do, and trying to figure it out based on your cues.
You might have asked your dog to do something like “down” and instead, they just stared at you, which means your pup maybe didn’t get the message. You can try asking them again, otherwise, remind yourself to spend a bit more time on that new command in a training session.
Dogs will often stare at us to try and “talk” us into doing something. More often than not, if you’ve got those disarming puppy eyes aimed your way, you feel compelled to do something nice for your pooch whether it’s petting them, fetching them a snack, or taking them out for walkies. These are all highly positive things for your pooch and seem like rewards for their staring!
Our dogs learn pretty quickly that staring at you will often get them the things they want. Because of that, they start to stare at us to tell us when they want or need something.
For example, you might have found without training the behaviour that your dog will come and stare at you if they need to go to the toilet. Some dogs do this, usually accompanied with a walk back and forth to the door along with solid eye contact, so it’s clear what they’re asking you to do.
Similarly, it’s pretty obvious what your dog’s asking for when they stare at you while you cook or eat. That food you’re making and munching looks and smells good, so they’ll be staring to show their interest and to try and win you over into giving them a bite.
When you look at your dog or cuddle up with them, you’ll feel a rush of oxytocin, which is the “love hormone”. This hormone is what mums feel when they first hold their babies and it’s important for creating bonds. But it’s not just you getting a hit of that happy love hormone!
It’s been found that when a dog stares at their human or does something positive like playing or cuddling together, your dog gets a rush of oxytocin too.
That means your dog is probably staring at you simply because they love you, and it makes them feel good. The same way we humans stare into the eyes of the people we are in love with, your dog’s just gazing into your eyes because they’re smitten. Now that’s what we call puppy love!
Even among humans, we avoid eye contact unless it’s with someone we love - gazing into each other’s eyes supposedly makes us fall in love and strengthens our bonds. It seems that it’s very much the same with our dogs. If your dog is staring up at you with a soft gaze, a relaxed or open mouth, a relaxed body, and a swaying or wagging tail, then it’s almost certain that they’re staring at you because they love you and are just enjoying you being there.
If you’re in a new environment or something stressful is going on, your dog might be looking for reassurance and they’ve got their eyes on you to ask for some comfort and safety.
For example, you’ve probably noticed during a trip to the vets that your dog will avoid looking at the vet and instead stare at you. It’s just them trying to reassure themselves that you’re there and silently ask for a bit of love from you to help calm them down and keep them safe.
As surmised in the book “Inside a Dog”, our dogs look to us for information, whether that’s their next command, reading our expression, seeing if we’re getting their food bowl, or just trying to figure out what’s going on.
Your dog might be staring at you to see what you’re about to do, and how they should react. For example, they might be watching when you put your shoes on, waiting to see if you then grab their lead.
Many owners and trainers insist that you reward a dog’s attention and staring at you to aid training. A pooch who’s keen to watch you and focus on you is more likely to listen to commands and obey them, so it makes sense to reward it. Rewarding the behaviour then enforces it, so it becomes a habit for your dog to stare at you and focus on you.
Sadly, not all staring is positive. Throughout the animal kingdom prolonged eye contact is usually a sign of dominance or aggression, so most animals avoid looking into another animal’s eyes unless they want to start a fight. Even we humans are known to “stare down” other people before an argument!
Dogs are the same and sometimes they’ll stare at you or another dog to signal aggression. If your dog is staring whilst very still and stiff, paw-haps growling, then they are being aggressive.
Staring can often accompany unwanted behaviours like resource guarding, where your dog’s watching you to make sure you’re not going to take their prized possession away from them, staring you down to show you they’re willing to fend you off.
If your dog is staring whilst showing threatening body language or vocalisations, you should calmly back away. Then if the behaviour persists, you should contact a professional for help on how to resolve their behavioural problem.
Sometimes a dog staring at you for a long time, or staring blankly into space, can be a sign of cognitive dysfunction. In the case of old dogs, it could be a sign of doggy dementia. If your dog keeps staring and you have noticed other behavioural changes like head tilting, or accidents in the house, then you should take your dog to the vet for an examination.
This links back to the fact dog’s stare at us to try and communicate. Your dog’s staring at you while you eat, paying all their attention to that tasty food and trying to tell you that they really want a bite.
Dog’s evolved that “puppy eyes” expression, and even eyebrows, to better communicate with humans. Staring at us and begging for food is just one of the ways they do that. It’s also been proven that puppy-eyed expression is used by dogs to manipulate their humans into doing what they want. So your dog’s staring at you when you eat to tell you that they want some and trying to trick you into giving them a bit!
This behaviour is probably reinforced too. Dogs stare when they’re interested, so your pooch probably watched you eat dinner naturally because it looks and smells great. Then when you saw them staring you tossed them a tidbit, which to your dog looks like you’re rewarding what they were doing.
So from then on your dog started staring at you when you had food thinking if they keep their gaze on you, they get some food. That’s why if your dog stares at you while you eat, you should ignore them and avoid feeding them because it can build a bad habit that’s tough to break.
If your dog is staring at you and providing unwanted attention, perhaps while you’re eating, the best thing to do is ignore them. You can also redirect them to do something more constructive, like waiting in their bed or playing with a toy while you eat.
If your dog is staring at you and it seems to be after certain triggers, like grabbing their food bowl, then they are probably trying to anticipate what you’re doing and doesn’t need discouraging. It’s normal behaviour!
However, if your pooch is staring at you as a form of aggression and displaying other unwanted behaviours like resource guarding, you should contact a professional veterinary behaviourist to help resolve the issue and keep you and your pup happy and safe.