Dog watching—like people watching—can be a fun activity for people. Guessing the breed and, eventually, asking if you can pet their dog brings a little joy to the day. However, it’s a good idea to be a bit wary of how you look at a dog.
Prolonged eye contact can have different meanings for dogs, depending on their individual temperaments. But a dog, especially one who struggles with reactivity or is wary of people, might be alarmed by a stranger staring at them.
Staring Can Make a Dog Feel Challenged
For a dog, a stranger staring at them might be seen as a challenge, threat, or something to make them uneasy. They may even fear you could be trying to take a resource, such as a toy or chew, away from them. That’s why it’s best to act calm around new dogs.
Also try to avoid extended periods of eye contact, especially for dogs who already be struggling with human reactivity or overarousal. If they feel overstimulated, these pets might react by trying to end the uncomfortable interaction and getting you to move away. This might manifest as a change in body language, barking, lunging, snapping, or even biting.
Similarly, just because a strange dog is staring at you doesn’t mean they are always friendly or comfortable with your presence. If you notice a strange dog staring at you, particularly if they have a stiff posture and are unblinking, try to avoid making eye contact. Instead, back away to give that dog some space, since they are showing clear signs of discomfort.
Avoid Distracting Dogs
Try to avoid distracting service dogs while they are working, as this can have unexpected consequences. It’s important not to call out to the dog or stare at the dog and handler as this might make both the human and dog uncomfortable or prevent the dog from doing their job. You wouldn’t want the dog to lose focus and miss a cue, possibly inadvertently putting their handler’s health or safety at risk.
But My Dog Stares At Me
You may notice that your own dog spends time staring at you. Dogs stare at their people for a wide variety of reasons, but often it’s to learn more about us and what we are doing as a way to develop that human-canine bond. Your dog may be watching you closely for hints something exciting is going to happen, like mealtime or going for a walk.
Dogs can also use eye contact to communicate their wants, such as a desire for food. A recently rescued dog who is shy, uncertain, or somewhat distrustful might avoid eye contact with you or turn away when they notice you looking back. In these circumstances, don’t stare into their eyes and allow them time to acclimate to your presence.
Why You Should Train For Eye Contact
Perhaps paradoxically, you do want to train and develop positive associations with eye contact for your own dog. The “watch me” cue is a foundation behavior; teaching it to your dog to watch you can reinforce the canine-human bond. By using positive reinforcement training techniques and pairing looking at your eyes with a treat or toy reward, your dog will learn that watching you is a highly rewarding activity.
A watch cue can be used for teaching your dog to heel for Rally or Obedience or getting your dog’s attention quickly on the Agility field. This cue is also invaluable in everyday life, especially if your dog is easily distracted or reactive to other dogs or people. Once your dog knows “watch me,” you can cue them to make eye contact with you as you lead them past a trigger. This can be helpful to support dogs maintain self-control in stressful situations.