A dog’s plaintive stare, or “puppy dog eyes,” is usually an attempt to communicate a need or desire to you. A dog cannot speak, but he knows enough about human body language and communication to tap into some elements of it, such as eye contact. If you find your dog staring up at you, there are many things he could be trying to say.
Here are 4 things your dog could be saying:
1. He Wants Something
Dogs have a good sense of time and routine. If your pet is accustomed to eating dinner or going on a walk at a specific time, he may sit near you and stare at you in anticipation. If it’s close to mealtime or another scheduled event, it’s a good guess that your dog’s gaze is a reminder.
2. He’s Looking for Affection
Some dogs are quite pushy about their desire for physical attention. Others are more inclined to let their masters make the first move. Your dog’s stare may mean that he’d like a scratch behind the ears or a belly rub. A good indication of this is if the dog is sitting very close to you or leaning toward you.
3. He Needs to Go Outside
Part of house-training is learning your dog’s signal that he needs to go potty. Some dogs will stare at their owners; others will sit near the door. Signs your dog needs to go outside include circling and pacing.
4. You Have Something He Wants
Some dogs are silent beggars who will stare at you intently in hopes of getting a tasty
If staring doesn’t work, your dog may try other methods of getting your attention. He may lay a paw on your arm or leg, move closer, lay his head in your lap or start to bark and whine. Each individual dog will have a unique communication style, so learning to understand your dog’s desires is usually a matter of spending enough time together that you recognize his quirks.
Why Do Dogs Make Eye Contact?
It’s also relevant to note that sometimes dogs simply stare at their owners because they love them.
Japanese researchers discovered that eye contact shared between dogs and their owners raises oxytocin levels in the brains of both parties. Oxytocin is a hormone responsible in part for happiness, and it has been called a “love hormone” thanks to its role in bonding between family members, romantic partners and friends.
In humans, eye contact facilitates bonding and stimulates oxytocin production. Interestingly, dogs do not make eye contact with each other as a form of bonding. Wolves also tend to avoid human eye contact and view eye contact as a threat. So why do dogs make puppy dog eyes at their owners? Put simply, because they know we like it.
It’s hypothesized that dogs began to develop a positive reaction to eye contact as part of the domestication process. Through thousands of years of evolution alongside humans, dogs have grown to adopt some of our communication methods and habits. Because humans bond with their babies through eye contact, dogs who make the same kind of eye contact may incite in their owners the same sort of instinctive love and protective impulse. In a way, eye contact is how dogs have domesticated humans!
Does Eye Contact Mean Aggression?
Not all stares from a dog are loving. Eye contact can also be used as an aggressive or dominant attitude. Fortunately, there are ways to tell whether a dog’s stare is menacing or friendly.
A dog’s overall body language is the first indicator. Tense muscles, raised hackles, ears pricked forward or flattened back and a visible snarl are all sure signs that a dog is in a foul mood. An aggressive dog may also stalk forward stiff-leggedly, moving slowly toward what he is staring at without breaking eye contact. This is often a good indication that the dog is planning to attack.
Sometimes a dog will make eye contact with you as a challenge of your dominance. You can test this by matching the intensity of his stare. A dog that looks away when you stare him down is deferring to you. If you stare back without the dog looking away, the challenge may escalate.
It’s usually best to avoid making eye contact with a strange dog until you know his particular communication style. Just as you wouldn’t stare intently at a stranger in a restaurant, it’s polite to avoid direct eye contact with a dog you don’t know well until you’ve become more comfortable with one another. This can prevent any miscommunications or challenges to authority.