Why Does My Dog Stare at Me?

Fluffy white dog sits and stares intently in a living room

Grace Chon / Getty Images

If you've ever had a dog, it's likely that, at one time or another, you've taken part in a staring contest with your pet. You or something you're doing becomes the center of attention and there's no breaking focus. For some dogs, the concentration can last for minutes, undeterred by anything else going on around them. But, why does your dog stare at you? It all comes down to canine behavior and their way of communicating how they feel, and it's common across breeds.

According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, it's important to pay attention to overall body language for clues to help interpret what your dog is trying to say or do. Dogs will often exhibit other behaviors or mannerisms that give a clear indication. For instance, a stare from your pet is usually considered happy play or eager anticipation if it is accompanied by a wagging tail or excited barking. However, if your dog is growling, whimpering, cowering, or showing teeth, there may be other underlying reasons at hand.

To Communicate

When it comes to conditioned responses, dogs pay very close attention to what they need to do in order to get what they want. Once they've learned that you'll respond a certain way, like giving in and sharing your bacon, dogs learn how to react the next time they're in a similar situation.

Likewise, your dog, especially one you’ve had for a while, knows your unique gestures and habits, so he's watching you for signs, too. If your dog's stare is locked onto you, he may also be trying to communicate something you need. For example, an academic study published in the journal Plos One found that specially trained alert dogs were highly effective in letting their owners know of impending hypoglycemia episodes. By knowing what to look for (or smell for) when their humans were in trouble, they were quick to respond with staring, pawing, or barking when they noticed important changes happening.

To Gather Information

In addition to communicating, your dog is also patiently watching you and your surroundings to collect and analyze information. Back when dogs roamed as wild wolves, they needed their powerful senses of smell and eyesight to gather clues about danger or available food and water sources. Now, as domesticated pets, though their environments have been drastically altered, those behaviors are still ingrained in their DNA.

On a daily basis, dogs are surrounded by a litany of activity that they need to be aware of, from machinery to children to small animals. Inside the home, they're paying close attention to the family they spend all their time with. While they may use a stare to communicate what they want us to know, they’re also watching us to see what our actions are going to be. As we move around our space with our pets, they’re hearing every tone in our voice and looking for any gesture or movement that may dictate what we'll do next.

Our dogs are our most loyal animal friends, so they want to know every move we make and be a part of that action. They don’t want to miss anything, and staring is a small part of how they calculate our moves. The smallest of clues, which we may not even be aware of, is telling the dog a story, and he's always ready to pick up on what's going on around him.

To Express Their Emotions

One of the reasons dogs are so lovable are all the ways they show their emotions. They seem to be eternally happy, playful, and unconditionally loving. Like humans, dogs express a wealth of emotion through their face and eyes and it doesn't take much to read what a dog is trying to "say." This can be a friendly, loving emotion or one that shows they’re angry, upset, scared or dangerous.

By staring, they are showing their human their interest, excitement, and anticipation of the moment. They have an intentional awareness of the present that allows them to focus on just what they deem important at the time, regardless of what's going on around them. When a dog is feeling good about the situation and at ease, other body language like a wagging tail or pouncing jump may be present. He may even like it when the human stares back. This mutual staring, much like in human relationships, releases oxytocin, commonly known as the "love hormone," and can be a good way to bond and show affection.

A dog will sense the trust and love you are trying to convey and will return it in kind. However, dogs that have a history of abuse or neglect may not react in the same way. Typically, they won't like it if a human stares back at them, as it may be interpreted as a sign of aggression. And a hurt or scared dog may be shaking or cowering while they stare because they are in fear of something that may happen next. An angry dog, or one that feels threatened, may stand in an aggressive posture that shows he's ready to defend himself or his area.

To Do Their Job

Certain dogs have "the stare" embedded in their genes; it's what they're bred to do. Humans have spent hundreds of years breeding dogs to fulfill specific purposes related to farming, hunting, and tracking. Herding dogs, like border collies and Australian cattle dogs, stare as a way to control and manage their flock. As the livestock moves across the pasture, these dogs will circle the group and carefully watch what the animals do. When they want them to stop or turn, they'll get low to the ground and stare intensely until the animals obey. Pointer dogs are another example of a breed that uses the stare to do their job. These types of dogs work hard following a scent on a trail, and once they pick up on a lead, they stare to let the hunter know they are on the right track to find prey.

View Article Sources
  1. Rooney, N. J., Morant, S., & Guest, C. (2013). "Investigation into the Value of Trained Glycaemia Alert Dogs to Clients with Type I Diabetes.PLoS ONE, 8(8). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0069921