Dr. Mark is a veterinarian. He has been working with dogs for more than 40 years.
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, so they are looking and waiting for a command.
Since dogs have been domesticated for 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 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.
Read More From Pethelpful
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 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 at a university in Budapest that used eye-tracking technology showed 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.
© 2012 Dr Mark
DAVID AARON...Chgo on April 26, 2020:
Our rescue dog, MAX, connects with eye contact since he came into our lives at 3 months. He turned 4 on 3/15/20. He brings joy every day and will care and protect him till the time comes. All animals deserve our care and protection!
We're glad for this article. Thanks and best regards!
Mel on March 22, 2020:
This is amazing article and thank you for sharing your insight. It is my first time I had a puppy and so incredible i had this genuinely connection with him. I feel him and he feel me if I'm happy if he is happy if im sad and he is bored :) Dogs are exceptional creation of God. I was thinking of getting another one that he could have playmate. I think more of him than anyone else lol. I loved Pitzi and thank you for giving us insights on animal behavior so we can respond in the right way.
Flor Donaire on May 26, 2019:
My dog looks at me always and when I pat her head and talk to her using sweet voice, she would have the puppy eyes look lol. No, it is not all about food. She does that every time with or without food. I always talk to her so maybe it is also the reason why she would always choose me over the other members of my family :)
Ted on October 18, 2018:
My lab stares directly into my eyes when it is time to be fed, or when she wants to go on an expected activity like a walk.
Shirl on July 29, 2018:
My dog is 7 soon to turn 8. She is part snack Russel & part German Shepard. Got her as soon as old enough to leave her mother.. she was 1 of 8 puppy’s.
Was raised by a sweet lady & she got a lot of attention. This is because she had so much more energy then any of the rest. In fact when we met all the puppy’s as they were watching us at the fence she came running out jumping over all the other puppy’s so excited. Lady picked her up patted her little back & said this is the way I calm her down. I didn’t see the lady pick any other puppy’s up to calm them. I said that’s the one I want. On way home she was scared & got sick on me. To this day she is so mighty strong & has taken me down through the yard on my belly. Keep her on leash she runs showing off her energy & I have to hang on. I’m 75 but still keeping up with her. It’s just her & I & don’t get much company so she gets so excited when someone comes & us all over them. She is my lap dog sleeps with me sits with me eats my snacks
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on June 06, 2018:
Its great to know it is not about food, right Barbara? I get tired of hearing "your dog only likes you because you feed her" when I KNOW it is so much more than that!
Barbara Badder from USA on June 05, 2018:
Our dog looks into my eyes all of the time. Now you've got me wondering if it is more than just wanting food.
Tara on September 20, 2016:
What a great article! Answered so many of my questions. My 7 year old Great Dane/English Mastiff mix was a semi-rescue (very young) from a crazy environment. He was very timid in the beginning. Now years later, he regularly makes eye contact and maintains it. To the point it's sometimes uncomfortable because he just stares. But, he's in no way aggressive, never even misbehaves - he's the best, sweetest dog I've ever had or met. I've always believed his making eye contact was a great thing, showing he's very comfortable with us (considering the absence of ANY behavioral issues). This article just reinforced that belief. He's always been very hyper aware of our moods - if I'm feeling down he knows it and will come cuddle with me. Literally cuddle, he's a lap dog. Lol. So thank you for writing this!!!
Marie on March 05, 2016:
Thanks for your post. I totally agree. Some dog breeds use eye contact more than others. Border Collies and Aussies eye contact to communicate with sheep and cattle as well as humans. All of my dogs have been rescues and all have been mixed breeds. My Border Collie mix and Aussie-mix were my smartest dogs and both were had keen eye contact skills. I hand signal train all of my dogs - and any neighbor dogs who seem to be constantly in our yard - so that I can issue a command without interrupting a conversation with a human. My dogs watch my face constantly - which can be unnerving at times - and without a word I can command them to get into heel position, sit, stay, lay down, roll over, come and sit facing me, return to heel position, heel, sit, stay while I walk around them and away, lay down, sit up, come, return to heel position and release - all without a word. It is a fav game for them.
On the subject of cats. My cat makes eye contact with me also. She is also hand trained to come, lay down (no sit), and jump to a designated spot...when she is in the mood ... interesting, when she does not wish to humor me - she turns her head (or entire body) so as to avoid eye contact. She is also very talkative, more than our other cats, and I always know when her food dish has only 10 pieces left or is totally empty - she is a drama queen feline. She is tiny for a cat, but looks our 100 pound Shepherd-mix in the eye - without a hiss or growl - and defiantly walks away, often directly under his legs. Communication is clear. Thanks for your post. Interesting indeed.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on April 27, 2015:
I couldn't agree more. The more I learn the more I am impressed with these beasts!!!
ologsinquito from USA on April 27, 2015:
Dogs are wonderful, what can I say? They are such loyal companions.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on April 26, 2015:
Hi Heidi, do you think there is a difference between your male and female dogs? The research indicated that female dogs allowed to sniff oxytocin spent more time staring at their owners. The same was not true with male dogs. That might affect the way we behave with too.
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on April 26, 2015:
I've noticed that some of my dogs have been better at establishing and maintaining eye contact than others. And my relationships with them have varied, too. Hmm... the eye contact might be a factor. Something to think about. Voted up, interesting and sharing!
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on July 06, 2013:
Hi Jandee I read your comment (in sasanka´s hub) about your dog´ reaction to hearing French. Very interesting, and I have noticed a difference in response/response times with different languages. Do you work with your dogs in English? Have you seen this at all? (I train in Arabic because dogs seem to respond slower in Portuguese.)
Thanks for coming by!
jandee on July 06, 2013:
lovely subject. My youngest Dog is just 6 and everything seems to have come together all at once. He has been very hyper but recently he has quitened down and when we walk down the street he is watching me constantly which is great ,just what is required in the show ring,thanks for nice read,
jandee (the look used to get me off laptop has become a mouth around my wrist)
sasanka7 from Calcutta, India on July 06, 2013:
carlswanvegas on November 29, 2012:
I have to agree. 'The Walk' or 'Go For A Ride' is a serious game changer. It instantly makes you a hero for anywhere from 48 hours to days. It's such a big deal to dogs that humans have to use acronyms like "I think I might take Sophie for a W-A-L-K later if I have time." Glad you had a laugh.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 28, 2012:
Thanks carlswanvegas I got a great laugh out of that! My dog also has that other stare, which means "check the clock and get off of that computer, it is time for our walk on the beach". I think the walk even beats a piece of pizza, but I am not so sure she feels that way.
carlswanvegas on November 27, 2012:
Interesting topic. Eye contact with my dog has 3 categories. Feed me, I have to use the restroom and that piece of pizza looks amazing! Feed me is a basic sit and stare. Use the restroom is a much more serious look and stare with a distinctly closer positioning to where I am. That pizza belongs to me is a combination of feed me with batting eyelashes. Dogs are amazing! Great topic.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 21, 2012:
Congratualtions on that "rising star". The article was a great read and you really deserved it.
I have my dog trained with hand signals so she looks at me during our sessions. (Maybe just because I do not like to talk much!) It really does make a difference in our relationship. Do you use any hand signal with Lily, or just tell her you want to sit with your eyes? She sounds like a great dog.
Allison on November 21, 2012:
I recently read an article about using only eye contact and body language to give what otherwise would be considered verbal commands ("sit", "down", "come"). I have been playing around with it a little bit, and I can get Lily to sit just by making eye contact. It is amazing how well dogs read body language, and I think humans could use it more to their advantage to have a closer relationship with their pet.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 17, 2012:
Thanks for your comment Jo. I am glad you like the images--I am sure it was my lizards first time to appear on the internet! Thank you for sharing.
Jo_Goldsmith11 on November 17, 2012:
Very well written. Useful, awesome, beautiful and so interesting! I have a dog and she is my little baby! I have had her since she was a pup. She is a little over one now. About 15 months old. I will hold eye contact and sooner or later she will break it to give me kisses. Dogs rule!
visuals were perfect!
cats too! tweet, tweet. :)
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 16, 2012:
Thank you for the comment, Annemari. I appreciate the vote!
Annemari from Tiny part of the World on November 16, 2012:
Great story. It is really interesting, so keep up the good work.
Well done and voted up.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 16, 2012:
Bailey sounds really sweet, and it sounds like she knows how to tug on a few heartstrings as well!
Lisa from WA on November 15, 2012:
I just recently moved back in with my parents with my boyfriend and his blue heeler, Bailey. It took them forever to get used to the fact that Bailey, unlike their little Westie, actually looks them in the eye. I'm pretty sure most of the time it's for attention but there are times I catch her staring and I swear she's just looking at me with nothing but love in those big brown eyes.
This was a very fascinating read. I never really thought too much about the fact that dogs really look people in the eye and how complicated that one seemingly simple act can be.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on November 14, 2012:
Perceptive comment, because they really do read us and respond to those gentle teachings. It is not just the scientific evidence that tells us why they are looking into our eyes, and it is definitely not a response to a challenge!
ShyeAnne from Qualicum Bay, British Columbia, Canada on November 14, 2012:
Well done and thank you. My fella was a staunch believer that a dog looking a human in the eye is a direct challenge. I told him perhaps with a dog you don't know that might be true. He came to undertand through my gentle teachings, that dogs are a lot more aware than he realised. This article substantiates many of my beliefs. Scientific evidence is not necessary when dealing with the hearts of all creatures, humans, dogs and more.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on October 15, 2012:
Hi Barb I know that look "Its time for my walk; leave your Hubpages and lets go!"
Barbara Anne Helberg from Napoleon, Henry County, Ohio, USA on October 11, 2012:
@DrMark1961...Interesting thoughts are covered in this Hub!
I've never doubted that my dog looked directly at my eyes for instruction or information. They've all done it.
What did you say, Mom? What are we doing next, huh? Can I get some food? Outside?...sure...pant, pant...Let's go!
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 04, 2012:
Not my particular cup of tea, but I do get your point! Thanks for coming by.
george looney on September 04, 2012:
Try staring at actor's Michael Douglas' own eyes (of Basic Instinct) for some amount of time? Just kidding... Very interesting hub, informational too...
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on September 03, 2012:
Thanks so much for your comment. My dog is looking up at me as I write this, telling me to do a good job!!! (Either that or she is whining at me because it is past our normal bedtime.)
nikashi_designs on September 03, 2012:
My dog Chloe has beautiful brown watery eyes that pierce your heart. Dogs and humans are both very emotional creatures, making eye contact is a way to get a reading on current feelings and I believe its also a sign of respect. Being able to convey without words is why dog and man are best friends. Fantastic article.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on August 28, 2012:
Thanks for the comment. They definitely study us, and learn how to read our every movement and facial expression.
Joe Njenga from Nairobi Kenya on August 20, 2012:
I think dogs can read our thought by directly staring at us. Eye contact also shows a connection between you and your pet. Possibly this is the case.
Dr Mark (author) from The Atlantic Rain Forest, Brazil on July 27, 2012:
I am sure they do decide. I don´t think my pet lizard even has that option, he is just staring.
Pintoman on July 27, 2012:
I think the dog decides whether it's gazing or staring. I don't know. I think it depends on the breed a lot too. Herders can take a glance as a challenge, have had lots of experience with that. Interesting article, well written. I have always had a dog or dogs until the recent past. As for C.S. Lewis, you can argue with him in his books if you want. Or me if you want in a private email, just don't want to change the subject here, or sound like you aren't worth talking to.