For humans, eye contact conveys attentiveness and interest in the other person. When we love someone, we gaze deeply into their eyes as a sign of affection. But should we do the same with our canine companions? Do dogs like eye contact?
In a dog’s world, eye contact is a sign of dominance and can often be seen as a challenge or a threat. A friendly dog approaching an unfamiliar dog would do so with their eyes averted to avoid confrontation. But some dogs have learned that people tend to stare at them out of love, and they may respond with a loving gaze in response.
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“Cultural” Differences In Our Communication
When meeting someone from a different culture, it is a sign of respect to follow their customs when interacting with them. For example, some people greet each other by touching cheeks. However, that would be disrespectful in certain other parts of the world where physical touch is reserved for only the closest family members.
This is true for our canine companions as well. Taking the time to understand their behavior can help us understand the best way to approach and interact with them.
Sure, dogs can learn what we mean when we do certain things, but that takes time. It is best to start off with a language that is familiar to them to avoid miscommunication. When friendly dogs approach each other, they do so with their eyes averted to appear non-threatening. Dogs will often break eye contact to avoid fights. So, if a dog turns away and rolls over when you stare at them, they’re displaying submission to avoid a perceived confrontation.
So, instead of unwittingly threatening a dog you just met, follow their cues to greet them in a way they’re comfortable with. For example, make sure to stand a respectful distance away from the dog. Get down to their level with your body angled slightly away and try not to make direct eye contact. If the dog seems comfortable, you may extend a balled fist and allow the dog to sniff you. Some dogs may take a good whiff and turn away, signaling the end of the interaction. Others may come in closer or allow you to pet them gently on their chest, neck, or back. Avoid reaching over a dog’s face to pet them on the head, and avoid leading with your face as well.
Why Do Dogs Stare At Us?
That being said, dogs have evolved alongside humans over many millennia. Their behaviors have changed to suit our shared relationship. Even though eye contact is not an innate canine behavior, dogs recognize that it is an important way that humans communicate. So, they have adapted themselves to better interact with us. There are several reasons that a dog may stare at you.
They Want Something
When a dog performs a behavior that earns them a reward, they are likely to do the same thing over and over. As humans, we love it when our dogs look at us, especially when they make their famous “puppy dog eyes”.
They soon learn that all it takes is a sad pleading gaze to earn a treat or tidbit. This encourages them to repeat the behavior because by giving in, we have positively reinforced it. Behaviorists discourage this type of behavior because you are inadvertently encouraging your dog to beg at the table. When staring no longer works, these dogs will often try more forceful nuisance behaviors like pawing or barking to get what they want.
Some dogs also learn to tell their owners that they need a bathroom break by staring at them from a spot near the door. This too can be traced back to a time when a dog happened to look back at you from the same spot when they needed to go outside and you rewarded them by opening the door. Dogs aren’t naturally inclined to stare, but they soon learn they can use a well-timed gaze to get us humans to do their bidding.
They Are Paying Attention
Dogs often wait for commands or cues from their owners before they do certain things. Your dog may have been trained to stay before they are allowed to exit through an open door or eat from a bowl placed in front of them. If your dog stares at you in these situations, they are likely anticipating a deliberate command or gesture that will determine their next move. This is especially true of dogs who have been trained using positive reinforcement. They’re well aware that executing a task following a command will earn them a treat, so they’re always on the lookout.
During playtime, a dog may stare at you while waiting for your next move. That is why it is important to look at the big picture when interpreting a dog’s body language. A happy, playful dog will have a relaxed posture, often with an open mouth and wagging tail. If your dog suddenly stiffens up, tucks their tail, and stares at you with a serious expression, it may feel threatened, and it might be time to dial back on the play.
They’re Saying They Love You
As we’ve seen, dogs are great at understanding how humans communicate. Even though staring is considered rude in dog communities, they soon learn that gazing conveys a positive message amongst humans. In response, your dog may learn to stare at you to express their affection. Studies show that mutual gazing between dogs and humans increases “the love hormone” oxytocin for both parties. Oxytocin promotes feelings of trust, improves bonding in relationships, and has been shown to boost mood. So, sharing a look with a dog that trusts you may actually be beneficial.
Can You Train A Dog To Maintain Eye Contact?
In some cases, teaching a dog to maintain eye contact is beneficial. For dogs that participate in competitions, a steadfast gaze will ensure their attention and minimize reaction time. Eye contact training must begin in puppyhood so that your dog learns from an early age that eye contact isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The clicker training technique using positive reinforcement is a common way to coach this behavior because it teaches them that looking at their humans can earn them treats and rewards.
In Conclusion: Do Dogs Like Eye Contact?
Prolonged eye contact is not a natural way for dogs to communicate with each other unless they are trying to convey dominance. Even though you mean no harm, an unfamiliar dog may feel intimidated by an extended gaze and react negatively.
If you want to show a dog you love them, it is better to use more dog-centric behaviors to try and make friends. But if you’re comfortable with the dog you’re interacting with and their body language seems relaxed, it’s likely that they are able to read you well enough to correctly interpret the situation. In such cases, eye contact can be beneficial and your dog may even be enjoying it.
So, what do you think about dogs and eye contact? Let us know in the comments below!