Written by Anna Hollisey
Sometimes it feels like they’re holding a one-sided staring contest. But don’t worry. If your dog stares at you for endless hours of the day, you’re not alone. It’s typical doggy behavior, and they do it for a few different reasons. From checking your emotional state to waiting for the next cue or command, your dog gets a tonne of information from your face. So next time they’re gazing at you, take a moment and gaze back.
The human face is the window to the soul – revealing your emotions, thoughts, intentions, and physical state. Dogs have figured this out.
After at least 20,000 years of living with humans, our canine companions have officially learned to recognise and read the human expression. They’ve even been working on their own facial expressions – has your dog perfected the ‘puppy-dog eyes’?
Many experiments have now proven that dogs have developed an ability to ‘read’ faces – and, since they have lived in our homes for so long, they’re probably better at it than any other animal.
Trials have shown that puppies instinctively look for eye contact with their human carers. One test compared puppies with human-reared wolf pups of the same age. They were invited to locate food, helped by their humans. While the wolves relied on their noses to search independently, the canine pups checked for clues in their humans’ faces and gestures… and got the food faster!
Right, so we know that dogs get information from looking at our faces. But what are they actually looking for? Here are five reasons that your dog might stare at you:
Let’s take a look at these in more detail…
Your dog could be staring at you simply because they love you. Really? Yes. The human-dog bond is well-researched. We know that eye contact promotes the production of oxytocin in both dogs and humans.
Oxytocin is also known as the ‘love hormone’. It’s stimulated by parents gazing at babies, lovers locking eyes, and… owners sharing a moment with their dogs.
But it’s become evident that dogs also benefit from this happy-making hormone. Your touch and attention boosts their levels of oxytocin, helping them to de-stress and feel good. And it could be one reason why your dog doesn’t like being separated from you.
Could your dog be staring at you because they’re bored?
Some dogs love training. They love it because they want you to give them attention and praise, and it keeps their brains busy. So your dog could be staring at you to see whether you can be enticed to play.
And you know what? While they’re focused on you, it’s a great time for some training practice. Even a short session helps to mentally stimulate your dog so that they’re less likely to indulge in destructive behavior. Use the opportunity to practice an old or new trick: ‘shake paws’ is a nice one to try out!
Time to relax with a snack on the couch. Did you close your eyes, even for a few seconds? Your dog makes it their business to know about that. In fact, they could be staring at you to see when your attention strays…
In 2003, a delightful German study tested the behavior of dogs in the presence of food – and their owners. It was very clear that the dogs behaved differently when they were being watched. “When the human looked at them, dogs retrieved less food, approached it in a more indirect way, and sat more often.”
If you’ve ever returned to a room to find your dog licking your plate, you’ll be able to corroborate this research!
Perhaps your dog is staring at you to gauge your mood. Canines are renowned for their sensitivity to human distress, pain, or joy. Have you ever cried in front of your dog? They’ll most likely come to you and offer a comforting nose or nuzzle.
In the global pandemic, many of us drew on our dogs’ strength and companionship for emotional support.
In Psychology Today, Marc Bekoff reported on a study showing that 88.8% of owners said they had fewer panic attacks due to the support from a dog. But on the flip side, how does their state of mind affect the dog?
In September 2020, researchers measured dogs’ heart rates when they comforted a crying owner, and concluded that distress can be ‘contagious’. Bekoff cautioned: “The relationship between an emotional support or service animal and their human must be viewed as a two-way street in which the nonhuman’s well-being is given equal consideration.”
Does your dog stare at you when it’s nearly time for a walk or dinner?
Of course they do... especially if you’re just a little late. When your dog has learned to expect a certain routine, they will anticipate your next move. If your next activity is a walk or a meal, your dog will probably be extra-attentive!
Some dogs learn to read cues for other events, too.
Thanks to home surveillance and MRI experiments, we know that dogs often struggle when their owners leave the home. If you regularly go out at the same times to the same places (gym on a Wednesday, kids’ swimming on Friday, and so on), your dog will note the things you do in preparation. So when you’re rolling a t-shirt into a bag or hunting for your car keys, your dog’s stress levels could already be rising.
Should you get a second dog to comfort your dog? Probably not, says Naia Carlos in Psychology Today. Instead, prepare a ‘home alone’ box filled with treats wrapped in newspaper and empty toilet rolls or toys, and bring it out while you are getting ready to leave.
Slowly, your dog will learn that you’ll return in due course – and then they can continue staring peacefully at their favorite person.