It’s a common belief that making eye contact is a vital part of human communication and body language, but can the same be said for dogs? What does it mean if your canine is reluctant to exchange eye contact?
The truth is, dogs view eye contact slightly differently to people. While we view a little ocular interaction as fine, but any prolonged staring is considered rude, aggressive or challenging. A canine often leaps straight to the latter response.
This article will talk you through the etiquette of eye contact with dogs, and how to use our eyes to bond with dogs without taking things too far. There is a fine line that all owners will need to remain on the right side of in order to achieve the desired result.
Why Does My Dog Look Away from Me When I Look at Him?
Most often, this is your dog signaling that they are submissive and that you are in charge.
This isn’t necessarily something that you need to worry about, but do keep an eye on your dog’s other behaviors. If you’re wondering why your dog keeps peeing on the bed, for example, this could all be part of the same symptom. Over time, this could lead to Fido’s quality of life diminishing through sheer timidity. Nobody likes the idea of their dog feeling that they need to tiptoe their way through life.
There are other potential reasons why your dog may be reluctant to meet your gaze, though – PetMD have a great deal of information on this particular behavior.
Some of the reasons for this include the following:
- Your dog has been staring lovingly at you, but you happened to meet their gaze. They are looking away so as not to appear aggressive.
- Your dog is in physical pain or discomfort.
- Your dog is stressed or anxious.
Only you will know why your dog seems hesitant to make eye contact with you. Keep an eye on this behavior, and compare it with symptoms of anything else that may help you understand this reluctance. If you suspect that your dog is sick or has any form of mental or emotional anguish, it may be time to speak to a professional.
My Dog Won’t Look at Me – Are They Feeling Guilty?
Picture the scene. You have returned home from a day at work and opened the door. You notice that your dog has been marking territory all over the house, and they are struggling to look you in the eye. They know that this is not appropriate behavior, and they are feeling guilty about it?
This is a myth – and potentially a dangerous one. As Scientific American explains, even though dogs are capable of feeling strong primary emotions, this does not include guilt. Fear, on the other hand? That’s definitely a possibility.
This means that put bluntly, your dog is not avoiding looking at you because they have done something wrong such as having an accident in the house, eating something from the fridge, chewing on the furniture or tearing up the mail. They are, however, avoiding your gaze because they are frightened that you are going to punish them for doing any of the above.
As anybody with a basic understanding of dog psychology understands, this is not a good mental place for your pet be in. If your dog lives in fear of you, they will not become a capable, confident canine that can make their way in the world – and that, naturally, means that they’ll end up behaving in the same way again in the future. It’s hugely counter-productive, and something that should be avoided at all cost.
Is it a Problem That My Dog Won’t Look at Me?
It isn’t ideal for four main reasons:
- If your dog won’t look at you, it is afraid of you. That isn’t the path to a happy relationship based on mutual affection.
- If your dog won’t look at you, it will be hard for them to understand what you are communicating when you speak. Dogs can comprehend around 300 human words, but they follow body language more.
- By extension, this will also mean that any training of your dog will take considerably longer. A dog that will not make eye contact with you will not be taking everything in.
- If your dog won’t look at you, it will make grooming and cleaning tricky – especially when it comes to removing tearstains naturally.
Perhaps the most critical scenario from the above is one of your dog being in a constant state of submission. This could lead to a state of panic and fear, which is no way to live and will often heavily contribute to cases of separation anxiety.
It’s also no picnic when you can’t communicate with your dog. Trying to get your point across can be much easier when your pet understands what you’re trying to say, and that will strengthen and enhance your bond. If you often find yourself resorting to growing frustrated and raising your voice with your dog, you’ll struggle to maintain the relationship that you want and deserve.
Training problems are a natural extension of this, and if you grow antsy and aggravated because your pet won’t do what you tell them in a timeframe that suits you the submission and cowering will only get worse. Respect is great, and essential for your relationship with your dog. Fear, on the other hand, is counter-productive and damaging.
Finally, there is the grooming problem – and make no mistake, that can be a problem. Your dog will need to have hair trimmed from around their eyes, tearstains cleaned, and their faces washed with wet wipes and flannels between baths and showers. All of that will be virtually impossible if they are determined to hide their face from you.
Thankfully, all is not lost if all of this sounds familiar. Just because your dog is afraid of making eye contact with you now, that does not always have to be the case.
Can I Train My Dog to Look at Me?
You should probably do so when they’re a puppy if that’s at all possible, as it will save you a lot of trouble further along the line.
Vet Street has some suggestions on how you can do this, but they mostly boil down to the following:
- Take your dog out on their leash for a regular walk, and every now and again give the command, “look at me” or, “look into my eyes.”
- If your dog looks up, make a huge fuss of them and give them a treat.
- Gradually reduce the command to something shorter or more simplistic, such as, “look” or “eyes.”
Eventually, this means that eye contact will become second nature to your dog, and they’ll stop seeming so skittish about the whole thing. If your dog doesn’t take to this training naturally, you should try an alternative method.
- Get down to your dog’s level so you’re nose-to-nose – at least in terms of height.
- Hold a treat in front of your dog so they can smell it.
- Give the command – “look at me” or, “look into my eyes.”
- Treat your dog.
- Get another treat and repeat the command, but this time only treat your dog after they hold your gaze for a few seconds.
Eventually, as above, you can reduce the command to something more basic, and you will find that your dog is less reluctant to look at you. Before long you’ll be sick of the sight of them staring at you at all hours!
What Does it Mean When My Dog Stares at Me?
First thing’s first – this does not mean that your dog is attempting to assert their dominance over you. Although direct staring between two canines is deemed to be a challenge and aggressive behavior, there could be a plethora of reasons why your dog is looking into your peepers. These include:
- Your dog loves you and doesn’t care if you know it (check out our guide on how to tell if your dog has bonded with you for more information on this.)
- You have changed your appearance (had a haircut, shaved off a beard, etc.). You smell the same, but you look different… your dog is making sure that you’re you.
- You’re wearing something strange that your dog has never seen before, such as a motorcycle helmet. They’re wondering what it’s for.
- Your dog’s body clock is telling them that it’s time to pee or go for a walkie, and they’re waiting for you to catch up.
- Your dog has picked up a pheromone or facial expression from you, and they’re trying to work out what it means.
- You have caught your dog’s attention by rustling a bag of treats or opening a tin of food, and they’re waiting for your next move.
- Your dog is deliberately being cute and trying to encourage you to play with them or share your food.
- Your dog is playing with a favorite toy or eating and ensuring that you’re not going to take it away. This could be a precursor to aggression, so keep your distance.
As you will see, when a dog stares at a human it’s usually because they want something fun from them, not because they harbor any ill will or intend to do them harm! Sometimes it’s even just a case of your dog being fascinated by you and wondering what you’ll do next, much like the way babies and young children are prone to staring at strangers in restaurants.
What Does it Mean When a Strange Dog Stares at Me?
It’s hugely important that you understand non-verbal canine cues, especially those of a dog that you may encounter while out in public. A strange dog staring at you is often something different to your beloved pet.
If you happen to be out for a walk and a dog stops in their tracks and begins staring at you, do not stare back. The dog may not be attempting to claim dominance over you, but that doesn’t mean that their intentions are entirely benevolent. If you meet the direct gaze of an aggressive dog, they’ll see that as you challenging them, and this may frighten them. As we all know, a frightened dog can very quickly become an aggressive dog as self-preservation instincts start to kick in.
If you should encounter an unaccompanied canine on a walk that doesn’t seem keen to get out of your way and insists on staring at you, follow these steps to diffuse tension before it can arise:
- Avert your gaze from their eyes. We have already said this, but it’s so important that it bears repeating.
- Stay still. Running away will activate the dog’s predatory instincts and encourage them to chase you.
- Gently speak to the dog in a very soft voice, saying something like, “hello handsome. Where’s your mummy or daddy? What are you doing out here on your own?”
- If the dog shows more signs of aggression, brace yourself for an attack. Assume the fetal position to protect your head and face, and place a barrier between you such as a coat or bag.
- If the dog shows no further signs of aggression, remain still and let them approach you for a sniff. Do not try to stroke them! You may mean well, but the dog might think that you are going to hit them.
Remember, however, that dogs will tell you a great deal with their body language before they resort to barking, snarling or growling. Learning what they are trying to say before anything needs to turn unpleasant or aggressive will save everybody a lot of awkwardness! For more information on aggressive dogs, check out our guide to why dogs are aggressive to strangers.
Does the Shape of My Dog’s Eyes Mean Anything?
It most certainly does. Big, wide eyes where you can only really see the whites and barely notice the iris are a warning that your dog is frightened or stressed, and they may attack. Eyes that are half-closed and almost squinting, meanwhile, could demonstrate that your dog is in pain or physical distress.
Every breed of dog has different and unique shapes to their eyes, so you’ll have to make sure that you understand their default facial expressions. You’ll also often find that different reactions to eye behavior are accompanied by a variety of facial expressions.
Should You Look a Dog in the Eyes?
Is it wrong to stare a dog in the eye? This depends on how well you know the canine in question, and whether you have earned his or her trust.
As we have already discussed, you should never stare back at a strange dog that appears to be penetrating your very soul with their glare – that is unlikely to end well for anybody. If it’s your dog, however, it can be a heartwarming way to pass a few minutes.
In many respects, judging whether to look a dog in the eye is a similar pattern to judging whether to look a human in the eye. You wouldn’t sit and stare at a stranger on the train without expecting to be challenged about it, but you have no doubt stared deep into the peepers of your partner or spouse at one time or another. Use your discretion, and behave accordingly.
My Dog is Staring at Another Dog
As we have mentioned a handful of times, a dog staring into the eyes of a human is not a display of dominant behavior. A dog staring at another dog, however, may well be.
First thing’s first, though – be aware that your dog staring at another canine from across the park doesn’t necessarily mean that they have ill intent on their mind. It could be something perfectly innocent like they think they recognize the dog from a previous walk and are trying to work out if it’s the same animal before they invite them to play. They could be trying to capture a scent in the wind and work out what the other dog’s intentions are. Maybe they’re just standing their ground and watching from a safe distance, trying to work out if the dog will be friendly if they approach (or even attempt to walk past – remember, dogs can be very territorial, even in public spaces).
Understanding the body language of a dog’s tail can be very helpful here. As Live Science explains, a dog that wags their tale to the right is saying, “I feel happy and relaxed – come on over,” whereas a wag to the left is a warning that the canine in question is not feeling sociable and should be given a wide berth.
If two dogs do lock eyes and they are nearby, however, you may need to take a particular action. These include the following:
- Prepare yourself – a dogfight may be incoming. Flapping and panicking will only make things worse.
- Do not yank your dog away – this will aggravate your canine and make them more determined to fight, while also winding up their aspiring opponent.
- Speak softly to your dog – avoiding eye contact with the other – and gently try to encourage them to walk away of their own accord.
- Try to distract your dog with a toy, ball or treat. Do whatever it takes to break the spell of this other dog’s stare.
If the two dogs do end up fighting, don’t get in the way – the last thing you need is a bite to the hand to add to your woes. This does happen, make sure you clean the bite wound as quickly as possible! We also have a guide to why dogs attack other dogs elsewhere on this site that shines more light on canine-on-canine violence.
Once the scrap has run its course, separate the warring hounds and let them calm down. Try to allow your dog to finish their walk, so they do not dwell on the incident and end up with PTSD. The last thing you want is for a precious space such as a dog park to end up being somewhere that you can’t take them any longer. However, you should keep your pet away from any other dogs for a while in case they remain on high alert and repeat the same process all over again.
Eye contact is a touchy subject for a lot of dogs, and it may not be something that they gravitate toward naturally. It’s very much a matter of trust for most canines – both gaining and retaining – and as a result, it’s not something that should be taken lightly. Bring a new puppy home and stare into their eyes with the intensity of Bela Lugosi’s Dracula and you’ll terrify the poor little furball, who won’t understand that you’re trying to understand how something so cute could exist outside of a cartoon!
It pays to remember that the sooner you train your puppy to look at you and not view human eye contact as something to fear or avoid, the more likely you are to enjoy a long and fruitful bond. Leaving aside the sheer logistics surrounding grooming and training that we have already discussed, there are few things more satisfying than being able to look into your dog’s eyes and see the love they hold for you reflected in those big, brown peepers.