Chances are, you’ve caught your dog staring at you. Likely often. And you’ve probably wondered why. Dogs spend a lot of time staring at their owners, and there’s no one simple answer for why dogs stare.
Although it’s impossible to always answer the question “Why does my dog stare at me?”, there are some clues you can follow to unravel the mystery behind this very common behavior. Let’s take a look at the many reasons why your dog stares at you.
Communication Through Staring
Your dog may stare at you for a variety of reasons, but staring is primarily a form of communication. From adoring stares to ice-cold stares, dogs use eye contact to communicate with those around them.
Thousands of years of domestication have resulted in dogs developing a close relationship with humans, making them experts at observing and reacting to human behavior. Lacking a common language, dogs and humans have learned to use non-verbal cues to determine one another’s intentions.
Most dogs spend the majority of their time with us studying our behavior, and they are experts at doing so. Because so much of their life is dependent on our actions, it is important to them to understand what we are about to do, or what kind of mood we are in and how that might affect them.
Since they can’t communicate verbally, dogs use eye contact to determine what we’re doing or what will happen next. You may notice your dog staring at you when you open your kitchen cabinets or when you’re getting dressed. They do this because they’re anticipating getting a snack or going for a walk.
Most of us have marveled at the way our dog can distinguish between us getting ready to go out alone and us getting ready to take them for a walk. Their constant observance of our behavior allows them to notice small indicators of our intentions.
Dogs are also experts at reading and deciphering facial expressions. Based on our facial expressions and gestures, they may attempt to guess what they should do next. Dogs are adept at reading their owner’s moods. If you look sad, your dog may try to provide comfort by cuddling up next to you. Dogs are probably the animals most in tune with human emotions.
However, communication is a two-way street. Since dogs are attempting to communicate with their stares, we should also try our best to understand what they’re trying to convey. When reading this article, you’ll find that most of the time understanding what dogs have to say requires context of the environment and situation. However, the rest of their body language can also add insight to their emotions.
Different Types of Communication
If you notice your dog staring at you, they are telling you something, whether actively or passively. For instance, they may sit next to the door and look at you if they need to go to the bathroom.
The most common type of communication that you’ll recognize is anticipation. Dogs are observant and constantly keep an eye out for signs something is going to happen that impacts them. It doesn’t take long for dogs to learn that when their owner picks up the leash, they’re going for a walk. So you’ll often catch dogs staring when they expect something to occur.
You may have asked, “Why does my dog stare at me when I eat?” If your dog stares at you while you’re eating, they may be hungry and want you to share your food, or hope that you may accidentally drop a morsel on the floor (like that one time you did so six months ago and they still haven’t forgotten!).
If you often give your dog a treat for following commands, they may stare when anticipating their reward. This type of communication is generally passive and is a response to learned expectations, especially dogs trained using positive reinforcement methods. They are simply waiting for the expected next step to occur.
Dogs stare to express positive and negative emotions. A dog may stare at you as an expression of love and affection or to communicate a problem. This form of communication is active and is equivalent to them “telling” you something. It’s important to consider the situation when asking, “why does my dog stare at me?”
Showing Love and Affection
Since your dog can’t verbally express how they feel about you, they often use eye contact to communicate their feelings. Like humans, dogs stare into the eyes of someone they love. When dogs and humans stare at each other, their bodies release oxytocin.
Oxytocin is commonly known as the love hormone because it increases feelings of love and trust. Staring is a way for dogs to express affection after developing a close bond with their owners. Dogs have a soft expression and often squint when staring affectionately at someone. They also wave their tails, pant lightly, and relax their ears while staring at you affectionately.
If you’ve ever asked, “Why does my dog stare at me when I’m sleeping?”, one reason may be that they love you, and staring is a way to bond with you. They may also be anticipating an event that often occurs when you wake up — taking them out for a walk, feeding them, etc.
A tilted head, soft gaze, and pricked ears are common ways dogs communicate their confusion. Staring is how dogs ask for clarification when something confuses them. If you gave your dog a command they didn’t understand, you might be met with this type of stare.
They’re probably trying to figure out what you want from them. Your dog wants to do the right thing and is looking for clues from you so they can please you. Or they may simply be trying to figure out what’s happening and hoping you’ll help them find out. Sometimes they just want to know what you’re doing.
When an older dog stares at you without explanation, it could be a sign they’re suffering from Cognitive Dysfunction Syndrome. Your dog may be experiencing cognitive decline if they wander around aimlessly, appear disoriented in familiar surroundings, bark in the night for no reason, or forget basic commands. Be sure to check with your vet if you think your dog is displaying symptoms of cognitive decline.
Showing Fear and Aggravation
A dog staring at you isn’t always a sign of affection. Some stares communicate aggression. A dog’s gaze could indicate the dog doesn’t want you to touch them, or that they’re going to attack if you get closer.
Paying attention to a dog’s body language before assuming their stare is friendly will help you protect yourself. Dogs typically don’t stare at their owners aggressively. You’re more likely to get an aggressive stare from a dog you don’t know, though it is possible that your own dog can be distressed and exhibit this behavior.
If a dog is stiff or has their ears pinned back while staring at you, don’t make eye contact and leave them alone until they calm down. You never want to pet a dog that isn’t relaxed and is showing signs of stress or aggression.
Aggressive stares may also signal a dog is afraid or worried. If your dog repeatedly stares at you aggressively, this could indicate a behavior problem. Consider seeking help from a dog trainer or an animal behaviorist.
You’ll often catch your dog staring at you when they want something, hoping you take the hint.
Dogs may stare at you by the door when they want to play outside. This is their way to ask you to open the door. You may also see a dog staring at you when their toy gets stuck between furniture, waiting for you to help them get it out.
In this case, staring is their way of “asking” for help or for something they want and they need your attention to get it. Dog owners often unintentionally teach their pets that staring will get them what they want.
Asking for Food
Dogs may also use staring to manipulate their owners. One example is when they beg at the dinner table. Most dogs know if they stare long enough, their owner will give them some scraps from their meal. Many dog owners don’t realize that they’ve trained them to beg at the dinner table by occasionally sharing their food with their dogs, effectively providing positive reinforcement for their begging.
If you ignore your dog’s gaze, they will most likely move onto another activity. However, many owners find themselves feeling guilty or uncomfortable when their dogs stare at them while they’re eating. Thus, they often share a bit of food with the dog. Once you start sharing your food with your dog, it’s a difficult habit to break.
Asking for Attention
You’ve probably noticed that dogs aren’t shy about staring. They’re hoping their staring will get them noticed. So they’ll stare at you, hoping to get the attention they crave. There’s a link between attention and desire because dogs hope by staring, they’ll get something they want, such as a belly rub or to play.
If your dog is bored, they may stare at you, hoping for a little extra attention. Giving them some affection or playing with them is often enough to satisfy this desire.
Asking for Direction
Dogs stare when they are looking for you to tell them what to do. If you’re training your dog, they may stare at you while waiting for you to tell them what to do next. If you’ve taken your dog for a walk, they may look up as you near a crosswalk to determine whether to sit or continue walking.
Dogs want to please their owners by doing the right thing, so staring is their way of asking questions before doing something.
Asking for Protection
Have you ever wondered, “Why does my dog stare at me when they poop?” Dogs may stare up at you when relieving themselves because they’re in a weak position. Your dog is asking you to protect them while they’re in a vulnerable position. This inclination is likely hardwired in the dog, going back to before they were domesticated.
Do dogs use eye contact to communicate with us? As we’ve seen above, the answer is a resounding yes. Since dogs can’t communicate with us verbally, they often stare to communicate their needs. By paying attention to your dog’s body language, you can successfully decipher what your dog is trying to communicate when they stare.