It’s happened to all dog owners at one time or another; shoot, if you spend a great deal of time with your dog, it probably happens a few times a day. Here’s the scenario: You are eating, doing housework, writing an email, preparing to leave the house, or any of a thousand other mundane tasks. All of a sudden, your focus wavers, you look up from whatever it is you’re about at the moment, and you find your dog staring intently at you. Your own eyes flicker back and forth, and you look around the room, your ease disturbed, your train of thought broken.
How long has this been going on? Then you think back to every other time this has occurred, and you’re taken aback. Did I leave my pants unzipped after I went to the restroom? Why would my dog care about that? Is there something on my head? Did I forget something? You look at the clock; it’s not feeding time, or time for their afternoon walk. All of these thoughts, and many more beside, flash through your mind in the space of a moment. You then wonder…
Philosophers, researchers in a variety of disciplines, scientists, canine behaviorists, and dog aficionados have likely spent considerable amounts of cognitive power, spilled countless gallons of ink, and dedicated thousands of hours engaged in spirited debate over this very question. Unfortunately, as is the case with many unnerving facets of dog behavior, there is no single immutable answer.
There are more possible answers than there are dogs on the planet; depending on the dog and the situation, the same dog might be staring at you for several reasons at once! Given some concrete conditions, we’ll speculate on what some of the reasons motivating dog staring might be. Toward the end, we’ll also take a gander into recent research into dog behavior, and see what science thinks about making eye contact with dogs. Let’s consider the canine gaze in its many potential facets, including:
Context matters, and, in some cases, can help you determine, why your dog is staring at you. If you’re sitting down to dinner, and you spot your dog seated by your feet, watching you lift a forkful of food toward your mouth, the reason for staring seems clear. Your dog is hoping to share in your opulent repast, or, at the very least, that a morsel falls to the floor where he can nab it.
Take a quick peek at your phone; is it time for your dog walk? Is your dog’s tail wagging excitedly? Is the dog’s mouth curled into the equivalent of a smile? Your dog may be hopeful, eagerly anticipating mealtime, exercise, or any regularly-scheduled and routine activity you undertake together. If the dog is giving you a weird stare from a strange location, like your laptop keyboard, he may be expressing a desire to watch the latest dog documentary on Netflix.
There is nothing on Earth that gives me greater pleasure than the sight of a dog wearing little clothes. This phenomenon, however, is for many dogs, one of their least favorite things in the world. Dogs, you understand, are natural nudists, for whom freedom of movement is sacrosanct. Thundershirts and harnesses are one thing — the first provides physical comfort for anxious dogs, while the latter prevents wear and tear on a dog’s neck — but sweaters and costumes can be supremely uncomfortable for a dog who is unaccustomed to human notions of modesty and shame.
Consider my dog here. My mom made her a new outfit from an old child-sized Notre Dame sweatshirt. Restriction of all kinds is my dog’s abhorrence. She is typically a bouncy, energetic beast, and seemingly every part of her in constant motion. With the little sweater on, though, she sat very still and stared at me until I had taken a few photos. You can see the pleading, mournful look in her eyes. Clothes or not, a canine stare may very well be a result of a dog being put in unwonted physical circumstances that confuse or confound her.
Another reason why dogs stare is one that is probably familiar to all dog owners. You walk into a room and catch your dog in a compromising position; they’ve just done or are about to engage in an activity that they instinctively know is either naughty, forbidden, or both. There are as many variations on this theme as there are dogs. Whether they’re rooting around in the litter bin, eating something from the litter box, or they’ve brought home yet another piece of carrion from an outdoor adventure, you’re on the receiving end of a stare with an unmistakeable motivation: guilt.
This dog was caught in the act, getting ready to go joyriding in your new car. It’s an extreme example, and not one you see everyday, but there are far more mundane ones that we can all relate to. Frisky and excited one moment, every part of them freezes when they hear you walk in. Before you can chastise the dog, you’re either getting a guilty, downcast stare, or an innocent, but mischievous one.
Let’s leave these comical and humorous, but all too relatable, reasons for dog staring behind and look at one recently confirmed by scientific research into dog behavior patterns. Oxytocin is a hormone produced within the hypothalamus in the brain. Among its pleasing and beneficial effects, it plays a role in mitigating anxiety, creating and strengthening bonds between infants and mothers, as well as the physical sensation of comfort and security that comes from looking into the eyes of those we care about most deeply.
In 2015, researchers in Japan released the results of a study into the role of oxytocin production in staring between humans and their dogs. They found that when dogs and humans spent time staring into each other’s eyes, there was a marked increase in the amount of oxytocin released by both the humans and the dogs. Since oxytocin plays a role in mother-child bonding, it was also unsurprising to find the amount of hormone was even higher in female dogs. The context seems to indicate that dog staring during ocular interaction increases the feelings of joyful affection between dog and owner.
If you’ve spent as much time as I have immersed in critical and literary theory, then you may be somewhat suspicious of the gaze. While, in the abstract, staring can be complicit in reaffirming the inequitable structures of hegemonic power, this does not seem to apply when it comes to domesticated dogs. Dog owners may direct cautionary or reprimanding stares at their canine companions, but it does not seem that the same is true for pet dogs.
The Japanese study points to a kinder and more generous rationale. The biochemical response produced when dogs and humans stare into each other’s eyes is not only pleasurable for both, but may go some way to explaining one method that enabled the earliest dog domestication. In the aftermath of the Japanese study, a hypothesis has emerged that, while wolves tend to interpret prolonged eye contact as threatening, the evolution of domestic dogs was advanced when canids began returning our stares.