Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and author of the online dog training course "Brain Training for Dogs."
Watching dogs staring at the wall often leaves dog owners baffled. What's up with these dogs just sitting there, intently staring at the wall as if watching paint dry? What’s going on between those fuzzy little ears? Can dogs daydream? Contemplating if the old crayon marks are considered high art? Or maybe they’re sensing the paranormal? Or is it something more ominous going on?
Before you start dreaming up all kinds of apocalyptic scenarios, it helps to take a look at what might be so fascinating about a blank space. First off, let's consider a dog's senses so as to better perceive the world from Rover's perspective.
Those Powerful Dog Senses
Just like us, dogs are equipped with five main senses. However, many of their senses are far more developed than ours.
For instance, take their powerful noses. Dogs are known for detecting drugs, explosives, and even minute particles of sugar dissolved in Olympic-sized swimming pools. There's no doubt about the fact that dogs have a superior sense of smell compared to ours.
Then we have those sensitive and fascinating dog ears. Dogs can detect noises at a distance much better than we can. Marc Bekoff, in the book Canine Confidential, Why Dogs Do What They Do, explains that what a human can hear at 20 feet, a dog can hear at roughly 80 feet.
And let's not forget about a dog's eyes. Sure, we humans can detect colors much better than dogs and are better at seeing things up close, but dog eyes win when it comes to dim lights. Dogs are capable of seeing in light that is five times dimmer than what we humans can see. This stems back to dogs' history as crepuscular hunters. A dog's ancestors indeed fed on critters that were most active during crepuscular times, that is, at dusk and dawn.
With more acute senses, it shouldn't surprise us if dogs are more capable of detecting things we humans can hardly notice. After all, dogs were employed as faithful guardians for hundreds of years for a good reason!
Do Dogs Daydream?
You may be wondering at some point whether dogs could be daydreaming when they're staring intently at the wall.
Many years ago, studying a dog's brain using advanced technology was out of the question, but nowadays, complimentary of dedicated scientists, we are offered the luxury of digging deeper into those doggy brains.
Courtesy of brain scans performed on dogs trained to sit still in an MRI machine, we can now look at dog brains when fully awake (and no longer sedated as in the past). This gives us insight like never before, allowing us to learn more about their cognitive functions.
Yet we do not have any studies tackling specifically whether dogs are capable of daydreaming or not. Based on what we know though, it seems that dogs are mostly focused on the present and are not capable of fantasizing to the extent of accessing their past memories or thoughts of the future or imagining things that may never happen at all, as it happens in humans when daydreaming.
7 Reasons Dogs Stare at Walls
With this information on hand, before you go calling in the ghostbusters because your dog is staring at the wall, let's first rule out some more down-to-earth possibilities. Because some of the causes can be medical, please report to your vet to play it safe. Below are seven possible reasons why dogs stare at walls.
1. The Walls Have Pests
One reason your furry friends might be gazing so intently at the wall or even the ceiling is that they may be hearing the presence of pests that the human ear isn’t as finely tuned to pick up.
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It may very well be that your home has some unwanted freeloading tenants and your pup is trying to let you know that they need to be evicted post haste.
If you notice your pup continuing to stare at the same spot on the wall or ceiling, have a listen for yourself. You might just pick up the tiny scurry of mice or other unwanted creatures sharing your living space.
And while you are at it, take a closer look too. Perhaps there's a small fly or bug crawling on the wall and your dog is simply staring at it!
If your fur baby has detected such pests, make sure to get an appropriate exterminator out to take care of whatever might be hanging around in a safe manner (even if that means you and your furry friend need to take a short vacation to a hotel where they’ll have tons of new fun scents to explore).
2. Cognitive Decline
How old is your dog? While it's impolite to ask about a woman’s age, it may be important to consider age as your fur child grows older. Sometimes, just like with their human counterparts, dogs can suffer from cognitive dysfunction similar to Alzheimer’s disease.
A dog gazing off into space or a dog staring at a wall could be one of many symptoms signaling a decline in your pup’s mental facilities. The technical term is "canine cognitive dysfunction," although some folks like to call it "Sundowners' Syndrome."
Other signs of cognitive decline include restlessness at night, longer naps during the day, getting stuck in corners, failure to recognize familiar faces and withdrawing from normal activities that your pup once enjoyed.
While these symptoms sound scary, the sooner your pup gets to the vet and gets a check-up, the better. If your vet can catch this condition early, there is a strong possibility of slowing down its progression. A drug known as selegiline (Anipryl) has been approved for use in the clinical indication of cognitive dysfunction in dogs.
3. An Electrical Storm in the Brain
There may be some other medical concerns if your dog is staring off into space. If you notice your dog exhibiting odd behavior like staring at the ceiling or snapping at things that aren’t there, they might be having a neurological issue going on. In particular, what's known as a "focal seizure."
Not all seizures involve violent shaking and foaming at the mouth (just like humans can appear to have seizures by going “spacy”). And focal seizures are just that, seizures where only one part of the brain is involved.
If you suspect this could be the culprit, try to distract your pup while one of these episodes is happening. If you are successful, it may likely not be a seizure. If you can’t, it may be time to contact the vet for a neurological assessment.
Grab your phone the next time your pup is spacing out and record a video to show your vet to help them give a clearer diagnosis. A video is worth 10,000 words.
If your dog's staring-at-the-wall behavior turns out to truly be a seizure, your vet may recommend some tests and may put your dog on anti-seizure medications if it happens often enough.
The classic diagnostic test is to see if the patient can be distracted from the behaviour. If they cannot, or if it is very difficult to do so, then it is almost certainly partial seizure.
— Dr. Peter, veterinarian
4. Seeing Things That Aren't There
The list of possible medical problems causing dogs to stare at walls doesn't end here. There are several conditions that may cause behavior changes in dogs.
For instance, staring can be a sign of a dog developing eye problems. A dog who is losing eyesight may stare at nothing. SARD stands for sudden acquired retinal degeneration and is an eye condition known for causing blindness within 30 days and sometimes even within a few days.
Dr. Rhea Morgan, a board-certified veterinarian specializing in eye problems, in the book Small Animal Practice Client Handouts, describes SARD as causing dogs to bump into objects, act disoriented, startle easily and stare into space. The dog's pupils may also be dilated and dogs may blink less.
Sometimes, dogs with floaters in the eyes may act as if seeing things that aren't there. With eye floaters, what happens is that the inside of the jelly-like area of the dog's eyeball may develop pieces of debris floating around triggering dogs to see spots in front of them.
The presence of an eye ulcer may also create odd behaviors since the ulcers act like a spot in the dog's field of vision making the dog think he sees something that isn't there. Dogs with eye ulcers are often squinting, rubbing their eyes and pawing at them. They are very painful.
A vet visit to rule out eye problems is important, and in some cases, a visit to an eye specialist may be warranted.
5. A Matter of Metabolic Problems
It goes without saying that staring at walls can be caused as well by other medical conditions such as metabolic disorders and therefore require an in-depth veterinary assessment.
For example, standing and staring can be a sign that a dog has low blood sugar, or it can be indicative of toxins building up in the dog's body, which can happen with liver or kidney disease.
Even anemia and low oxygen supply to the brain from heart disease or high blood pressure can play a role. Not to mention, hormone imbalances can happen with dogs suffering from Addison's disease, Cushing's disease, or hypothyroidism.
Have your dog undergo a thorough physical exam. Your vet may require a urinalysis and some blood tests to check for values. Your dog's heart and lungs and blood pressure may be checked out too.
6. They Just Can't Help It
Sometimes dogs with intense personalities can get fixated on the weirdest things. If you haven’t noticed by now, dogs and humans are a lot alike both socially and medically.
Just like humans can suffer from compulsion-driven disorders like OCD, dogs, too, can be afflicted with similar maladies. Some dogs may develop compulsive tics like chasing their tails, licking themselves, or yes, staring off into space. As always, consult your vet if this is a possibility.
If your dog is fixated with the wall, again, record the behavior and show it to the vet. This can help with diagnosis. Consider that there are meds for obsessive behaviors in dogs to be used along with behavior modification should that be the diagnosis.
7. Idle Paws Are a Bored Dog's Workshop
Your pup may not necessarily be exhibiting a compulsion if they are in fact bored and under-stimulated.
Like children, dogs will do all sorts of things to get your attention, even if it’s what one might consider negative attention. "Idle paws are a bored dog's workshop."
So, be mindful of how you react when your pup is staring off into space. If you’re engaging with them every time it happens, you could be reinforcing the behavior.
It goes without saying that you should first rule out medical problems considering that there may be many other causes for wall-staring behaviors in dogs. Give your dog the benefit of doubt, especially if this is a new behavior he has never manifested before.
See your vet to exclude medical problems. Once they are ruled out, you can try engaging more with your pup when they aren’t zoning out. Give their brains stimulation and their bodies exercise and they'll be more content in the off-hours, which means less weird behavior for you to manage later.
- Author's own experience as a former vet assistant, dog trainer and behavior consultant.
- Small Animal Practice Client Handouts by Rhea V. Morgan
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.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Does Your Dog Stare at the Wall? Share Your Findings in the Comments Section Below
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 20, 2020:
indeed dogs staring at the wall due to bugs and critters is mentioned as number one under "the walls have pests."
peachy from Home Sweet Home on June 06, 2020:
I thought doggies stare at the blank walls because they saw a fly or bug on it.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 24, 2020:
Heidi, interesting how your friend's blind dog is staring at the wall and trying to pick up info using his other senses. Most of our dogs too were starting at walls and ceilings when there were critters. My female would even emit a disgusted whining sound when she would spot a bug.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 24, 2020:
Peggy, it's so sad when they develop cognitive decline. Staring at space and staring at walls, is indeed a common sign of canine Alzheimer's.
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 20, 2020:
I am sure I left a comment here for some reason I don't see it. Interesting to know that. Your hubs are useful and informative about dogs. I had not given it a thought of why dogs do this you informed me in detail,
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on May 18, 2020:
Funny you mention this weird trait. Mostly with our pups it's the pest control function. But there's a gal I follow on social who has a few doxies. The one is blind and just stares at the wall. Chances are he's still picking up something with his other senses.
Thanks for more insight into our furry friends!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 18, 2020:
One of my mother's older dogs started doing that and was suffering from cognitive decline. He also had to be hand-fed as he also seemingly forgot how to eat from his dish. He no longer knew when it was time to go outside to relieve himself. Before going on a vacation trip, she had him euthanized. It would have been too hard for him to be cared for by others. Sadly, our pets can get many of the same syndromes or diseases that we get.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on May 17, 2020:
I do not have a dog at this time, unfortunately, but I found this article to be very interesting. I know it is sometimes hard to figure out why a dog or a cat does any particular thin, but I love them both.
Robie Benve from Ohio on May 17, 2020:
Very interesting. I've never seen a dog staring into a wall, but I've seen artists posting videos of their dog staring at artwork for very long time. I always thought "their senses must be more sensitive than ours, who knows what they see? "
Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on May 17, 2020:
Interesting of why dogs stare into walls. One can change to do different to make a dog feel assertive. Nice one and as always lots to think of when with dogs.