When you were younger did you ever call out to your Mum because your sibling wouldn’t stop staring at you? Staring makes most of us uncomfortable, so you might be a bit creeped out if you notice your dog has taken to staring at you lately. It may make you start wondering what he is thinking behind those big eyes and if it’s good or bad – could he be plotting against you? (Probably not, after all he isn’t a cat!) But there is a reason behind that stare…
Stare VERSUS Slow Blink
First, you need determine, is my dog really staring? Chances are you are not staring back at your dog while he is creeping you out, so it may be that he is not really staring but is rather “slow blinking.” A dog’s body language includes the use of his eyes – not just where they are looking, but how they are looking. A dog who is slow blinking – blinking the eye lids slower with longer time in between blinks – is conveying relaxation and that they are not a threat. So, your dog may not be staring at you, he may just be relaxed and happy and letting you know!
IF YOUR DOG IS TRULY STARING…
That being said, dogs do stare. And it is vitally important to understand the difference between their stares.
Is he HARD STARING?
If your dog (or any dog!) is giving a hard stare (also known as a hard eye), you should stop what you are doing and assess the situation – DO NOT approach the dog! In dog body language, a hard stare is a sign that the dog is agitated and wants whatever it’s staring at to back off. Reactivity – including lunging, barking and biting – can follow a hard stare if it’s ignored. If you see a dog with hard eyes at the dog park or while on a walk, it’s time to disengage and not continue approaching, for the safety of every being involved.
But Chances Are, Your Dog Is Not “Hard Staring” at You … so what is he doing?
Since staring is not a nice thing in a dog’s normal language – chances are your dog staring at you is a LEARNED behaviour. Yup! We impolite humans tend to stare at dogs’ faces A LOT. Especially overly cute dogs or ones with unique features such as a blue eye or speckled markings.
For some young puppies, this staring is enough to create a reactive dog – which is why many trainers teach dogs to be okay with a human stare by teaching a “look at me” or “watch me” cue. This cue literally teaches your dog to stare at you and then get rewarded. So, your dog could be offering that behaviour in the hopes she will get something good.
Even if you haven’t intentionally taught this cue, your dog could have learned staring gets him something he wants through conditioning. Whenever we give our dogs a cue, we generally stare at them – whether it’s a sit, down or heel, which is then rewarded. In this case, staring becomes a precursor – something happens before you ask them to do something that gets them a reward. Again, a dog may sit and stare at you hoping you will give him a cue so he can earn a reward.
Your dog could have been conditioned to stare during his normal day to day life as well, no training required. Maybe you look at your dog in the face as you feed him each meal, or when you give into her begging and feed her a treat from your plate. Dogs are masters of body language and quickly pick up what works to get them what they want – if staring has earned them rewards, they are going to keep using it!
And, being intelligent creatures, dogs quickly learn to adapt that new language. So now he starts to stare at you if he wants anything, not just a reward. Maybe his water dish is empty or it’s time to go outside for a potty break. Maybe she is hoping for a belly scratch.
So basically, you are the annoying sibling that stared all the time until your dog, instead of calling for mum, figured out how to use staring to his advantage. Which shows you just how smart and adaptable they are at living with us. So next time your dog stares, just know you aren’t going crazy, he really is trying to tell you something…figuring out what, however, may be the trick.