Our pets’ unconditional love for us is totally endearing, but when your dog just keeps staring… and staring… and staring, it can get a little creepy. Sure, they’re animals, but it’s obvious that dogs have emotions — which means they’re totally capable of judgment, right? Well, while it’s true that dogs are intelligent, emotional creatures, those probably aren’t judgy eyes they’re looking at us so longingly with.
So then what does it mean if your dog won’t stop staring at you? If you’re eating, well, the answer is pretty obvious. Dogs love food and are always down for a treat.
Or your dog could be making eye contact with you because he wants another kind of reward. Maybe it’s going for a walk or playing a game of tug. It could be even simpler than that — your pup may just want some basic affection, like a kiss or belly rub.
Veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly offers even more reasons why a dog might stare: “There’s the possibility that a dog is simply seeking attention in any form or perhaps she’s merely waiting for praise or direction. Some dogs may just be trying to read an emotion in our human facial expressions.”
If you have a dog who stares at you often, it might surprise you to learn that eye contact isn’t a natural behavior for dogs. In the canine world, prolonged eye contact can actually be considered a challenge or threat. According to trainer Mikkel Becker, many dogs will turn their heads to the side to avoid making eye contact. It’s an appeasement gesture that dogs do to defuse potential conflict or a fight.
So why, if dogs usually treat eye contact with their own kind as a threat, do they stare at us humans so much? Becker says it’s probably because they’ve learned it leads to positive rewards like food and affection.
If you want to, you can actually train your dog to make eye contact with you on cue. It’s a great way to get his attention, and if people he meets happen to look him in the eye, you’ll want him to already be comfortable with it. Just make sure your dog seems to enjoy the eye contact and that it’s mutual — and stop the training if he shows any signs of aggression or stress.
Puppyhood is the best time to teach behaviors like this, but many adult dogs can also learn it — just be aware that if you’re teaching this trick to an older dog, he might already have negative associations with eye contact, which could result in aggression. Talk with your vet if you think this is the case.
Here’s Becker’s advice for teaching your dog the “look at me” trick:
Start by letting the eye contact happen on its own. Sit on the floor and keep your body still, and when your dog looks up at your eyes, say, “Good” (or deliver a click if you’re clicker-training) and give him a treat.
If your dog doesn’t naturally make eye contact, hold the treat a few inches away from your face and wait for your dog to look away from the treat and toward your eyes before you give him the treat. You may need to make a kissy or clucking sound or even use his name to get him to look at you. That’s OK!
Once your dog understands what he needs to do to get the treat, add a word to the behavior, like, “Look!” If you say the word as your dog moves his eyes to look at you, he’ll begin to associate the cue with the behavior. Soon enough, he’ll understand that the word “look” means that he should look at your face. Once your dog gets good at this trick, you can extend the amount of time he has to make eye contact with you before he receives the treat.
Becker reminds you to practice this command in lots of situations and settings — your dog may easily respond to “look” when you’re in your living room but maybe not so much at a busy dog park. Once your dog is really comfortable with this trick, let other people — friends, neighbors and eventually even strangers — practice it with him. With patience and plenty of rewards, your dog can learn to enjoy making eye contact!
Originally published August 2015. Updated May 2017.