Why Does My Dog Stare and Look Into My Eyes?
Why Do Dogs Make Eye Contact With People?
My dog makes eye contact. She is watching me, waiting. . . . So why do dogs look into our eyes? Is it hormonal, a sign of aggression, or just another way of begging?
And why is it usually dogs? When working with other species, I have noticed that they have a tendency to look anywhere but our eyes. Even the few of the species that do look directly at you—usually the carnivores—they'll look at your face, not directly into your eyes. (I know I am going to anger a lot of cat owners with that comment, but I am basing this on my own experience. Personal experience is only anecdotal, so you can choose not to believe it and no one can tell you that you're wrong.)
Dogs will sometimes avoid eye contact, too, if they are submissive, not used to being around someone, nervous, or afraid. After a while, though, most dogs make and hold eye contact more than any other species.
The Reasons Dogs Stare at People
Animal behaviorist Alexandra Horowitz pointed out the difference between the gazes of dogs and those of other species in her book Inside of a Dog. She believes that dogs look at us for:
- our ability to give food
- clues about our emotional state
- information about what is happening in their world
Dr. Horowitz believes that the dog's unique ability to look into our eyes and hold our gaze was one of the first steps in domestication.
Others feel that dogs are just staring because they expect you to throw them a piece of food. If dogs are really just thinking about food all the time, like some researchers think, staring is just a means of gaining information about where the food is.
Some dog trainers, like Cesar Millan, think that dogs are staring just because they are looking for direction from their owner. They want the owner to tell them what to do and so are looking and waiting for a command.
Since dogs have been domesticated at least 10,000 years (and some scientists believe much longer, up to 100,000) this ability has been selected for and carried down for many years.
Why have they developed this ability? Why is it that when you look into a dog's eyes you feel that he is looking at you, that he is reading your intentions and feelings?
Eye Contact Is Beneficial for Dogs and People
A study from Japan (April 2015) reveals that when dogs stare into our eyes, the activity causes us to release oxytocin into our bloodstream. The oxytocin levels in the urine are increased and dogs can smell this; thus, by making us feel good, they feel better when they are staring at us.
Oxytocin is a hormone that is released when mothers nurse their puppies, so maybe the dogs stare at us in the same way that a mother stares at her own pups. In some ways maintaining eye contact is its own reward. The more you stare at your dog, the more he stares at you, the better you both feel.
What a great thing.
Is Looking the Same as Staring?
Looking into a dog's eyes is not the same as staring and most dogs can tell the difference.
Staring can be a threat in dogs and in some other species. When someone stares at a dog, maintaining eye contact when he or she has no right to do so, it can make a nervous dog hostile or scared.
Sometimes the human does it is without even realizing it. Children too might do this without even being aware.
Is Your Dog Challenging You With Her Eyes?
Some dog trainers and behaviorists believe that a dog that looks back at its owner is challenging his authority as leader of the pack; numerous articles will tell you how to establish dominance by staring down your dog and discouraging his looking at you.
Most trainers no longer believe this and tend to encourage eye contact. Getting the dog to maintain eye contact is now an important part of training.
Eye contact in dogs is even a hot topic of research in some places. Research in a university in Budapest using eye-tracking technology shows that dogs are as sensitive to their owner’s looks as small children are with their parents. They recommend that owners increase their eye contact with their puppies so that they can build a better relationship.
So, What Is the Best Answer?
So why have dogs developed the ability to stare into our eyes? It is all about attention.
Dogs are great companions and want to be loved. Since dogs know that what we think will influence our behavior to them, they are looking at us because they want to know how we feel.
Look into my eyes and tell me differently.
A. Miklósi, E. Kubinyi, J. Topál, V. Csányi, M. Gácsi, Z. Virányi , A simple reason for a big difference: Wolves do not look back at humans, but dogs do. Curr. Biol. 13, 763–766 (2003).
Miho Nagasawa,Shouhei Mitsui,Shiori En, Nobuyo Ohtani, Mitsuaki Ohta, Yasuo Sakuma,Tatsushi Onaka,Kazutaka Mogi,Takefumi Kikusui, Oxytocin-gaze positive loop and the coevolution of human-dog bonds Science 17 April 2015: Vol. 348 no. 6232 pp. 333-336
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
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© 2012 Dr Mark