Q:Sometimes I can sense that my dog is just, like, looking at me, really intensely. Why does my dog stare at me? Is that normal?
A: Yes, they probably just want something from you—a meal, a walk, or maybe a scratch behind the ears—and is waiting for you to notice.
You seem to always feel it. You’ll be half-watching some Netflix series, or writing a semi-polite email to your least-favorite coworker when you have the unshakeable sensation that you’re being watched. And, sure enough, you look over and your dog is sitting there, focusing their attention— and both of their eyeballs—right on you. So what gives?
In short, dogs stare for a number of reasons, but mainly, it’s a way for them to communicate with you.
Reasons Why Dogs Stare
They Want Something From You
Dogs use their behavior, like staring, to get the things they want, says dog trainer and animal behaviorist Melanie Cerone, Ph.D., BCBA, CPDT-KA. Things like:
- A game of fetch
“Dogs stare at us because we, their caregivers, reinforce them for doing so in a variety of ways,” says Cerone.
Basically, our dogs know that if they just look at us, we’ll give them whatever they want. For example, if dogs watch us while we’re eating, we might give them a bite of whatever we’re having. Or if they look at us while we’re working or watching TV, we might be prompted to pet them, talk to them, or take them out for a walk.
“If you think about it, we are the source of all good things for our dogs,” Cerones explains. “They depend on us for all of their food; daily enrichment, such as walks, play, and training; attention, including petting and praise; and comfort when they are fearful or anxious. Staring can serve a communication function for dogs. It’s a way for them to let us know that they need or want one of these good things.”
It's a Look of Love
Do dogs ever stare at us just because they like us a lot? Actually, yes.
“Sometimes when our dogs stare at us, it encourages us to provide them with attention, which is also a major reward,” says Aubrey Sperry, CDBC, CPDT-KA, owner and head trainer at Sit Pretty Dog Training in Massachussetts.
That act helps to promote social bonding. “Research has been done that indicates both humans and dogs experience an increase in [the ‘feel good’ hormone] oxytocin after staring into each other’s eyes,” Sperry says.
So it goes something like this: the dog stares, we look back, reward them with our love and affection, the bond between dog and human grows. Rinse and repeat. How sweet?
It's a Sign of Aggression
While dog stares are often loving or solicitous, they can sometimes signify more negative emotions. Staring or holding eye contact may indicate that a dog is fearful, anxious or uncomfortable in some way, Cerone explains.
If a dog is staring at you while guarding their food bowl or a favorite toy, then both Cerone and Sperry say that can be a signal to back off. (This behavior is known as “resource guarding.”)
The same goes for a “hard stare” that accompanies a rigid posture or stiffened tail. “This behavior precedes more intense behaviors such as growling, lunging, and biting,” Sperry adds.
This may be more common with houseguests than the pet parents themselves, since some dogs are wary of strangers. “Typically, I see this with strangers approaching dogs more than with pet dogs at home interacting with their owners,” Sperry says.
Note to self: It’s also not a good idea for us to stare at dogs we don’t know.
“Dogs can perceive direct eye contact from unfamiliar people as a threatening gesture,” Cerone says. “So when meeting a dog for the first time, it’s typically best to avoid making direct eye contact with, staring at, or leaning over the dog, particularly if the dog is fearful or anxious of new people.”
How to Figure Out Why a Dog Is Staring at You
You don’t need some kind of Dog-to-English dictionary for this: You just need to use some context clues. By considering what you’re doing and when you’re doing it, you can probably figure out what your dog is trying to communicate with their big brown eyes.
Take this scenario from Cerone as an example: You’re working at your computer only to look up and find your dog staring at you while panting and wagging their tail. You wonder what they want when you happen to glance at the clock and notice that it’s past their dinner time. You jump up from your computer, apologize, and then you both run to the kitchen so you can prepare their dinner. Their tactic of staring worked and prompted the desired outcome: food. The next time you work past your dog’s dinner hour, what do you think they might do?
Although you might be able to decipher your own dog’s behaviors, it can sometimes be trickier to understand what an unfamiliar dog is trying to communicate. In those times, it may be best to avoid returning their eye contact and to assess what their body language—below their eyeballs—is saying. Are they showing signs of fear or aggression?
How to Get a Dog to Stop Staring at You
What if your dog is staring at you even after they’ve been fed, walked and belly-rubbed? Is there a way to get them to maybe… not do that?
Yes, Perry says helping condition them to relax in another space may discourage staring. “This can be accomplished by rewarding them for an alternative behavior like lying down on a nearby dog bed or other comfy spot,” she explains. “You can also choose to train this behavior prior to [the staring], by cueing them to go to their comfy spot at a time they may typically stare at you.”