What Eye Contact Means to a Dog

By Linda Cole

I love to sit back and watch my dogs interacting with each other. When I watch them playing and wrestling with each other, I’m reminded of a wrestling match between humans. It’s fascinating to see how dogs jockey into position with similar moves that humans use. What’s most interesting, however, is how they use their eyes to communicate with each other, just like human wrestlers. Eye contact is important to a dog, and we need to learn how to be respectful with our gaze and not stare.

Watching a dog’s eyes gives you an idea what they are thinking and how they are feeling. It can also signal that a potential dog fight could be brewing between two dogs. A dominant dog may feel challenged by direct stare and a submissive dog can be intimidated with the eyes. But when you stop and think about it, eye contact between dogs isn’t that much different than it is between people.

People who are shy or intimidated by someone direct their eyes away from a more dominant personality. The idea of confronting someone is distasteful and something they will avoid at all costs. Unless they are challenged or forced to stand up for themselves in some way, they are happier if no one notices them. The confident and dominant person isn’t afraid to make eye contact. Their eyes are generally relaxed, open to the world and friendly looking. They aren’t looking for trouble, but they won’t back down from it if they find it. A more aggressive person has a hard stare and his eyes are narrowed. They may be angry or looking for a fight and their stare is meant to be intimidating. Someone who is fearful is wide eyed and their pupils are dilated. Dogs that are timid, fearful, dominant, friendly or aggressive view eye contact in the same way, and react to the eyes like we do.

To a dog, a stare from another dog, animal or human is rude and can mean a challenge. When you think about it, we’re uncomfortable when someone stares at us, too. Thinking about how you feel about eye contact from another person will help you understand why it’s important to a dog. When you’re with your family and friends who know you as an individual, eye contact isn’t as intimidating because you are familiar with them. It’s the same way with your dogs. They know you and when they make eye contact with you, it’s usually a look that says they’re relaxed, happy and not intimidated when you give them direct eye contact. In fact, teaching your dog to make eye contact with you is one of the best ways to get your dog’s attention when you need to distract his attention away from a situation that could pose a problem.

Understanding how a dog interprets direct eye contact is very important when meeting an unfamiliar dog. It’s important to understand what a dog’s body language is telling you, and being able to tell the difference between a submissive, friendly, dominant or aggressive dog can help you send the right signal to him. Not giving a strange dog direct eye contact and using proper body language he understands can defuse a potentially dangerous situation. A dog that doesn’t know you may view your eye contact as rude, and an aggressive dog may perceive your look as a challenge to him. You should always keep your eye on an unfamiliar dog, but avoid looking him directly in the eyes and instead look at his ears or feet. A dog can tell the difference.

Because dogs have an excellent knowledge of body language, using eye contact with your dog is a good way to establish your role as their pack leader. A dog that’s challenging you will give you direct eye contact along with other body signals, and how you respond to him with your eyes and body language tells him what he needs to know and where his place in the family hierarchy is.

According to an old English proverb, “The eyes are the window to the soul” and dogs do talk to us with their eyes. When your bond is strong and a mutual respect is shared, the unconditional love you see shining in your dog’s eyes is true and forever. Eye contact with a dog who loves you has a way of melting into your heart, and it never leaves.

Photo by Jesse Schibilia

Read more articles by Linda Cole

The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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7 thoughts on “What Eye Contact Means to a Dog

  1. Dogs needs affection after you discipline them. The affection is done only as a compensation of what they done good to you. Pet him after he obey you is good and necessary, all dogs needs lots of affection on exactly moment. If you do only affections on your kids more like they won't obey you. Discipline, exercises then affection, that's how it is.

  2. I get a little confused at times. My current dog is a very nervous dog (much more so than the other 4 I’ve owned). He’s a Jack Russell mix and I’m used to black labs. He’s not afraid to gaze into my eyes but sometimes he’s shuffling and other times it’s a calm steady gaze. We both know I’m alpha at all times so when he does the shuffling dance and there’s no reason for him to be nervous I speak softly to him until he stops shaking. I don’t want to pet him then because I’m afraid it will encourage him to act that way. Am I wrong for this?

  3. Oh my, all that is so true. Dogs do tell what they are thinking by their eyes and how they look at you and my two dogs sure know what I am thinking when I look at them. Also my tone of voice is what they listen for. Great post

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