What Eye Contact Means to a Dog

January 19, 2012

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® Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® Pet Foods.

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  1. Deidre young says:

    I love my dog Abby young

  2. Beverly says:

    I was visiting a Petsmart today in Queen Creek Arizona, where several rescues were showing their dogs. One was a beautiful German Shepherd, who was extremely aggressive and had to be crated with a cover over his crate, to avoid him barking at anyone who would make eye contact. I felt so much compassion for this dog and wondered what could have caused his aggression. Can anything be done to train this dog to understand that human eye contact does not necessarily mean anger or danger?

  3. Becky says:

    I have a chihuahua. Potty training has been harder than ANY dog I have ever trained. She is smart and knows what she is supposed to do outside. But she sniffs around and eats things in the grass and ignores me. Then as soon as I bring her in, she will hide and potty on the floor. She hates going to bathroom outside and will sit down and defiantly look and stare at me as if saying, make me. I’m at wits end with her!! Other than that, she’s adorable and loving.

  4. April says:

    My rescued dog Lilliana Aurora was all bones and only 2 months old found in a ditch. She now is 6 yrs old and we talk with our eyes constantly! I can give her a look and she puts herself in time out.. lol

  5. Anne Stirling Hastings says:

    My dog, who is a healing dog, has an additional kind of eye contact. It is intense but not threatening, and I know that he is communicating something that I need to know and the person I am working with needs to know. It is a long sustained look that is not at all threatening or uncomfortable.

  6. Lisa Hanna says:

    Why does my dog stare at me when being held and loved by another person?

  7. Linda Brink says:

    We rescued a yellow lab/husky from a kill shelter in Florida. He was wild, totally. No stairs, cars or leashes for him. A trainer came to our house and taught us to pin him down to establish dominance, but after that, positive reinforcement was the best method of training. Labs are highly food motivated so service dog school was easy, but his reactivity to other dogs was still a problem. Off to the dog “ behaviorist “ we went. After using a citronella collar for a few weeks he passed the socialization piece of service dog school like a champ! Bag Balm is my best product for paw protection and prevention of cracked, splitting paws. It never gets that bad anymore.

  8. Vale says:

    We rescued an all black German Shepherd. We have no idea how he ended up where he was because he was breed by DNA tested pedigree parents for K-9 work.He has been with us for a year and he turned 3 in October. He had never slept inside of a house and he was being starved and beaten to make him aggressive to be sold as a guard dog. He loves children but the only male he likes is my husband.He is in good shape now and we have worked with him from house training to letting him know he is a member of this family. He is by my side 24/7 I know he is very intelligent but he knows by now that I am just as stubborn as he is. We have always had loving eye contact. He started with me and then my husband. The other night I let him out to use the bathroom and he got in a front paws down backside up playful position and looked at me. It was dark so his eyes were reflective and I looked at him he just stared then gave a harsh bark and started running around. Should I have broken the eye contact? Did he maybe feel I meant to challenge him? It was strange and it’s still not sitting well with me,so here I am. I keep thinking about his reflective eyes in the dark,me not breaking eye contact and his bark. He’s not a big barker unless there is a threat. He’s also been a little distant since this happened.

  9. Kerry Goforth says:

    I have a pit bull jack russell mix. Hes a beautiful dog but he will not look me in the eyes but will look my girlfriend in the eyes. I play rough with him since that seems to be what he wants. He is strong and muscular like a pit and energetic like a jack russell. Why won’t he look me in the eyes but will to my girlfriend?

  10. Hi i am wondering why my dogs doent look me in the eyes, we all love one an other and they follow me around so i dont dout they love me because the pick me over everyone in the room. Im wondering why they avoid eye contact with me when i look them in the eyes, they never look me in the eyes for more than 3 seconds, two of them are not submissive in any why but doesnt look me in the eye, there pupils are never dilated

  11. I have a fawn Bouvier des Flandres. He is an extremely handsome dog. No matter where we are or what we are doing, people come up to us all the time asking me questions about the dog and/or if they can pet him. Unfortunately, if anyone (male, female, adult or child) he does not know looks him directly in the eyes, he will jump up (without a growl or any other warning) and snap at them. Therefore, I avoid people when we are walking or instruct people inquiring about him not to look him in the eyes. Otherwise, he is always a ‘gentle giant’ always full of love and affection. Is it possible to break this behavior and how?

    1. Nayely Calito says:

      I personally don’t think so. It would be helpful, to maybe distract him or tell people right from the start how your dog really. And although people wont feel so comfortable you letting them know how your dog is, it is less stressful on your dog and yourself. I think eye contact goes a long way for any dog and their personalities. Is he a gentle giant to strangers when they dont make eye contact, but pet him?

  12. Faith says:

    I was playing tug of war with my dog and she made direct eye contact with me. What would that mean?

    1. Nayely Calito says:

      I think its a way of bonding while palying. Either that, or she really wants you to let go of the toy. Haha.

  13. Patricia says:

    My name is Patricia and my dog with the fringe reaction is a Staffie cross.
    I got her 6 years ago from a rescue centre and she was thought to be 2 or 3 (found on the streets). She is wonderful with people and dogs large and small except for dogs without eyes.

  14. Patricia says:

    Can you please explain why my dog becomes aggressive whenever he comes across a dog with a fringe covering his/her eyes ?.

    1. Pegg says:

      Perhaps because he can’t “read” the eyes he can’t see?

  15. Isabel says:

    I need help my dog is a German Shepard he knows me I’ve been with him since he was a puppy. But this week he’s acting strange I always look at him and nothing happens directly? But now he keeps on barking at me like I’m a threat I need your help give me advice I want my dog normal again!?

    1. Pegg says:

      At different ages dogs want to be more or less dominate. I once read they try this out at about 3 and 5, sometimes again at 7-9 years old. My beagle was very predictable and I had to watch him at these certain ages. You might want to check this out.

  16. R.S. says:

    “You should always keep your eye on an unfamiliar dog, but avoid looking him directly in the eyes” – OK, but what if an unfamiliar dog stares at you first and has shown itself to be aggressive (fear-based aggression, if it matters)? Doesn’t looking away mean you are submitting?

    1. B. Peterson says:

      No. Dogs don’t actively try to compete with people and they understand that we’re not dogs. Staring with aggressive tendencies could mean all kinds of things – the dog could be uncomfortable with strangers or in a situation he/she considers stressful. Looking away might even make the dog less stressed if he/she perceives you as a threat.

  17. Michael L Hays says:

    My American Foxhound bitch, a breed known for being sweet, loving, loyal, energetic, and headstrong, picked me out at the shelter with a look which said, “you’ll do just fine.” A picture taken before we left the shelter shows a different look, which says, “I got my man.” Of course, we bonded instantly. So, when I gave her a new name, which she did not know, and let her off the leash after 36 hours, she ran like the wind for about 75 yards, stopped, and turned around to make sure that I was there. I had proof of my hunch that I did not have to worry about her running away from me. Unlike any other dog or bitch whom I have had, Miranda will sit and look directly into my eyes, and I shall look back into hers, and we hold that bonding, loving look. It expresses a powerful, mutual love

    1. Miranda says:

      Awww I love this story. My name is Miranda

  18. Vickie says:

    Sorry I miss spelled emaciated.
    Thanks again. Vickie

  19. Vickie says:

    HI, my name is Vickie Bates and I rescued my third Pitt bull and the first two were not near bad off like this one. She was emancipated with severe wounds and extremely fearful. She’s been to the vet and now that she’s feeling better she seems more cautious and looks in my eyes and her pupils are big. I know not to look back at her eyes . She stays in my room And believe me every move I make is with caution but confident at the same time and she loves treats. What else can be done to gain her trust. It’s such a sad situation. I would really appreciate any advice you have to give.
    Thank you, Vickie

    1. Nayely Calito says:

      Its been two years and i dont believe anyone has replied to you. However, i do have questions. Does she play? Do you bond over food(lol)? Is there a particular spot she likes to be in? Also, maybe make sure she doesnt sense your cautiousness, or nervousness (if you are), she can sense that and wonder, “whats going on? Is there a threat? Should i be scared or attack?” I mean, im no expert on dogs, but ive had one who did almost the exact of what she is doing. In any case, if i sound pushy, i apologize.

    2. Laura says:

      Reply to Vicky:
      I do not know your dog breed first hand, but I have had dogs all my life. My current dog (Pomeranian) I rescued when he was 3 years old. Lively temperament but- he had an issue about my direct gaze, and always averted his eyes, even moving his face sideways, then checking me out from that angle. I turned that into a game with him. It starts with a cuddle or two, then I start playing hide and seek with him, parroting his sideways gaze, each time giggling gently at him. It took a few of these sessions for him to realise there is nothing to feel nervous about…we now look into each other’s eyes directly and give and receive the love without a problem. The key point was: I crouched down to his level when playing the game with the eyes, or held him in my lap and that signalled we were being playmates, without dominance issues.
      It worked for us! I hope it helps in some way, Vicki.

  20. Lissa says:

    My dog (female 55 lb Husky) is kind of a special case. I got her from a puppy mill used for breeding for 3 years since she was a puppy. We’ve had her 2 years now. She is obviously traumatized by a male and is also naturally submisive. She took an immediate bond with me, and it’s obvious she was neglected but also aboused by a male that my husband reminds her of. I work and my husband is a house husband who spends a signifiantly more time with her. She loves his attention now when a year ago she wouldn’t be in the same room as him. Since we took her home, when he enters a room she stares at him, even now after she is used to him and enjoys his pettings. Me she follows around the house when I’m home in the evenings. Wanting to be in whatever room I am. She shys away from my glance and wont meet my eyes for more than a moment. From everything I have read this is conflicting, my husband is most definitely the dominant personality in the household and I consider myself submissive, yet she stares at him and wont meet my eyes? Can you explain what is going on with her and what I should do to make her happier? She is ususallly very lathargic and only eats at night when everyone else is asleep and rarely moves and is very overweight because of it. She won’t get up even to go outside to potty unless prompted. Because of this we are in the process of adopting a companion for her. I think a companion will help but I still don’t fully understand her frame of mind. Can you help?

    1. Brian Brahms says:

      Get another Husky. They are pack animals and play very well within there pack. Check out a Husky Rescue in your area. Most will allow you to foster a Husky to see how they will fit in.
      Personally I have 3 Siberian Huskies (2 are rescues). We also do something called Urban Mushing (like Dog Sledding but on land with scooters), which is great exercise and loads of fun for the dogs and us and helps maintain their weight.

  21. Cristina says:

    i have a question
    my dog is 6 motnhs old. I think he’s a pitbull/shar pei/ labrador mix and when i stare at him he looks at my eyes for like a minute or less and then he will lower his head like if I had any type of dominion of him or repect. I would like to know if that’s possible?

  22. Melissa Olsen says:

    I am so happy I came across this article. Currently my puppy and I are enrolled in a dog training group. From the first class I have had red flags with the methods used. Most importantly I took issue with the trainer telling us NOT to look at our dogs when giving commands. Something just doesn’t sit right with this line of training. My extremely smart Australian Labradoodle responds to eye contact and I am going to follow my instincts and not continue with this class. Personally, I think the trainer has a few loose screws.

  23. Pradaksha shetty says:

    Whenever I do something good to home like I feed him with my hands,when I brush his teeth or when I gift him or share with him something he always sees me I love his eyes….

  24. Elizabeth says:

    I have three dogs and each of them is very sweet and unique. All three use eye contact all the time with me for various reasons. But never to be threatening. Our newest addition who for a time lived a tedious life on the street is a small Chihuahua mix and he seems like he needs daily moments of eye contact where he lays on me and just stares up into my eyes lovingly, almost like a little child or a baby into their parents eyes. It’s very interesting, and sweet, and he acts frustrated and upset when he does not have that time to connect with me.

  25. Simone says:

    My dog always comes up close to me & stares at me straight in the eyes. I personally have always thought this was his way of telling me “thank you for saving me” & “i love you so much” as his eyes are so soft, gentle & loving when he looks at me. He unfortunately was extremely abused for the 1st 8mths of his life & the vets wanted to put him down due to this as they said he would never recover. Not long ago i had to change vets & was nervous how he’d react as he hates strangers & shys away. I was lucky enough to see an dog behaviorist/vet & he was absolutely amazing with Neo also confirming my thoughts that we have an extremely strong bond! Neo is now almost 4 & still looks me straight in the eyes every day.. in our relationship this is a loving moment. Follows me everywhere & very protective when needed. I strongly believe if anyone comes across this situation trust your gut & challenge the vets like i did as now i have the most trusting loyal best friend i could ever ask for! So much Love for my boy!

  26. 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.

  27. 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?

  28. Linda, that’s so true ad beautifully said: Eye contact with a dog who loves you has a way of melting into your heart, and it never leaves.

  29. Our Mom says that when Ernie and I look her in the eyes.. it makes her heart feel like a warm summer day.

  30. Marg says:

    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

  31. Finn says:

    Such a good tip – don’t give a strange dog eye contact. I love looking into my dog’s eyes though, I feel that’s how I best know her!