Updated - Jul 15th, 2020
All dog parents know that feeling of connection when you look at your dog and see those big puppy dog eyes staring back at you. We always want to interpret it as true love between us and our pups, and while that is a part of it, there are a lot of other reasons that dogs stare at their humans. Since dogs and humans can’t speak the same verbal language – barking doesn’t count! – they have to communicate with us using their body language and facial expressions, especially eye contact. Not all stares are created equal, though, and it is important to know what different looks mean.
Dogs Stare When They Want Something
Your pup can’t use their words to tell you when they are hungry or when they need to go out, but they can use their eyes. Dogs often stare at us when they need something, be it basic needs like food or a walk, or some attention via playtime or some extra pets and snuggles. Many dogs have a routine and know when it’s mealtime or time to go out and do their business, and if their human is distracted or slacking, they will let you know with that look. How many times have you been absorbed in a binge-watching session and looked away from the TV to see two big eyes staring right at you? Those looks tell you that it’s time to get off the couch and take care of your pup’s needs.
Staring is also used as a manipulation tactic by dogs trying to get themselves some yummy table scraps. The begging stare is common when they smell your tasty people food, and this is especially true if you make a habit of rewarding this behavior by feeding them from the table while you’re eating or in the kitchen while you’re preparing food. While it’s not a good habit to get into as too much people food is not good for a dog’s diet – especially if they have weight management issues or dietary restrictions – dogs use that begging stare to guilt us into sharing our food with them. There are few among us that can always resist that face, even when we know we should.
Trained Dogs Watch Their Humans For Cues
A dog that has been trained using positive reinforcement will look to their humans for cues telling them what to do. In fact, it is helpful to train your dog to look at you using a verbal cue (such as “watch me”) because they will focus their attention on you and not other distractions in their environment (smells, noises, or other humans or animals). A dog looking to you for direction will be more responsive to other commands.
If a dog is looking to their human for cues but continues to stare, especially with their head cocked to one side, this is a sign that they are confused. They know you want something, but they don’t know exactly what, and it is a sign that you’re not quite there yet with your training – but keep at it!
Dogs also look to their humans for cues to know what will happen next. If a dog sees you grabbing their leash or a poop bag, they know they are about to get a walk. If they see you grabbing their food bowl, they know it’s chow time. If they see you grabbing your keys, if they’re lucky they might be getting a ride in the car or a trip to the dog park.
Dogs Sometimes Stare When They Poop
Awkward! While it may seem a bit strange for us humans, it is not uncommon for a dog to stare at you while they are doing their business. This is a natural response that comes from the fact that, while in the act, they are in a vulnerable position and unable to respond to any potential threat. Staring at you during this time is your dog’s way of looking to you for protection to make sure you’ve got their back while they are going number 2.
Not All Staring Is Good Staring
Staring can be a sign of aggression. Sometimes if a dog – especially a dog who does not know you – is frightened or feels threatened, they will exhibit a “hard stare.” A hard stare is often accompanied by body language such as stiff posture, closed mouth (sometimes with exposed teeth), and wide pupils. This is much different from a “soft stare,” which is usually accompanied by a relaxed body posture, open mouth, and sometimes light panting. If you get a hard stare from a dog who doesn’t know you, you should avert your eyes and back away as they are clearly perceiving you as a threat.
In your own dog’s eyes, it becomes easy to tell the difference between the good stares and the bad ones. If you and your dog are still getting to know each other and they give you a hard stare, it is a sign that you should back away and give them some space. They are still getting used to you and their new surroundings and may not be comfortable with you just yet – and that’s ok! All dogs have to learn to trust their humans, and it’s perfectly normal for a new pup to feel frightened before you’ve fully bonded.
If a dog is being protective of toys, their food bowl, or a human companion, they may give you a hard stare. This is what is known as resource guarding, and it can be a signal that they are about to act aggressively. If your dog exhibits this type of behavior, you should consult your vet or an animal behaviorist to help deal with the problem through targeted dog training.
Staring As A Bonding Experience
They say that a dog is man’s best friend, and any dog owner can tell you that the bond they feel with their fur baby is very real – and now we have science to back that up. Studies have shown that when a bonded dog and human stare into each other’s eyes, a hormone called oxytocin (also known as the “cuddle hormone” or the “love hormone”) is released into the bloodstream of both dog and human. Oxytocin is the same hormone that is produced when a mom and her newborn baby stare at each other, and it is responsible for the bond that forms between them at birth. Dogs and their humans are no different.
When oxytocin is released into the blood, it has a calming effect, reducing anxiety and providing a sense of security. The trusting bond and love between a dog and their human is due in no small part to this chemical reaction in the brain. A 2015 study conducted at Azabu University in Sagamihara, Japan confirmed that both dogs and humans release oxytocin during affectionate staring. Interestingly, that same study showed that wolves – the ancestors of domesticated dogs – did not produce oxytocin from staring. Wolves see staring as a sign of aggression. The study concluded that the production of oxytocin may have been a crucial step in the evolution from wolves to domesticated dogs.
As much as we may wish our dogs could talk to us and tell us exactly what they want, we can learn a lot from the way they stare at us. Whether they want food, a potty break, a play session, or just some cuddles and affection, a dog’s eyes will let their humans know what is going on inside their heads, and any dog parent knows there’s no better feeling in the world than a loving gaze from those big puppy dog eyes.