Whether dogs care about eye contact is a controversial topic among dog owners and trainers. Some believe making eye contact is crucial for bonding and communication, while others say it can trigger aggression in some dogs. The truth likely lies somewhere in the middle.
The importance of eye contact for dogs
Many experts assert that eye contact is an important social signal for dogs. According to Dr. Brian Hare, director of the Duke Canine Cognition Center, “If you look away from a dog, it is a social compliment. If you stare at a dog, it is a social threat unless you are playing.”
When dogs make eye contact with humans, it releases oxytocin, also known as the “love hormone,” in both species. This helps facilitate bonding and affection. Prolonged mutual gaze between dogs and their owners has been shown to increase levels of oxytocin more than brief glances.
Dog trainers often use direct eye contact as a training technique. Rewarding a dog with treats when it maintains eye contact can reinforce attention and focus. However, this use of eye contact is very context specific, meant only for training sessions.
Why some dogs dislike direct eye contact
While eye contact can help communication between dogs and humans in many cases, some dogs perceive direct eye contact as threatening or challenging, especially from strangers. Prolonged staring can make these dogs feel uncomfortable.
In the wild, canines use eye contact to assert dominance and issue challenges. Wolves and dogs will often avoid direct eye contact with more dominant members of their pack. When eye contact is made, it is usually a sign of a challenge or threat. This instinct remains intact in domestic dogs.
Additionally, direct eye contact removes the opportunity for dogs to avoid confrontation through submission. Turning their heads or avoiding eye contact is a submissive gesture dogs use to prevent conflicts. Staring them in the eye takes away their ability to communicate deference.
Certain breeds are more likely than others to perceive direct eye contact as threatening. Breeds that were historically used for guarding and protection work, such as Rottweilers, Doberman Pinschers and German Shepherds, are more likely to react negatively to staring. Herding breeds, such as Border Collies and Australian Cattle Dogs, are also more uncomfortable with prolonged eye contact due to their instinct to control movement with their gaze.
On the other hand, breeds that have been selected more for companionship than for work, such as Pugs, Toy Poodles and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, are less bothered by sustained eye contact. They find it neither threatening nor challenging.
The role of context
Whether or not eye contact bothers a dog depends heavily on the context of the situation. Prolonged staring is much more likely to cause issues when the dog is in an excited or agitated state. It can push them over threshold and trigger reactive behavior.
Eye contact with a relaxed, happy dog is unlikely to be a problem. Some dogs even seem to enjoy “conversations” of mutual gaze with people they are fond of. The dog’s emotional state and their relationship with the person making eye contact are very important.
Environment also matters. Inside their homes with family or in familiar public settings, most dogs tolerate eye contact well. But in unfamiliar, overstimulating environments like dog parks or pet stores, staring can add to stress and reactivity.
Tips for making eye contact with dogs
Here are some general guidelines for making eye contact with dogs without triggering aggressive or fearful reactions:
- Start any eye contact off brief and casual. Quick glances are the least threatening.
- Keep your body language and facial expressions neutral and relaxed.
- Slowly work up to more prolonged eye contact once the dog is comfortable with short glances.
- Stop staring if the dog looks anxious, turns their head away, yawns, licks their lips, or shows other signs of stress.
- With dogs who dislike prolonged staring, use eye contact for specific training exercises but avoid it otherwise.
- If the dog’s body language is playful, feel free to engage in longer mutual gazes.
The power of eye contact
Eye contact has a significant impact on communication and relationships between both humans and dogs. It can strengthen bonds when used positively, but also trigger tension or aggression when dogs find it threatening.
Like most forms of communication, appropriate eye contact is all about understanding the receiver. By respecting dogs as individuals and paying close attention to their body language, eye contact can be used to improve relationships rather than undermine them.
The question of whether dogs care if you look them in the eye does not have a universal answer. Some dogs perceive direct eye contact as a threat or challenge, while others find it bonding. Context, individual temperament, breed tendencies, environment and more play into a dog’s reaction.
In general, brief eye contact and glances are safest when interacting with unfamiliar dogs. Prolonged staring should typically be avoided unless the dog is signaling they are comfortable through playful, relaxed body language. With dogs who dislike eye contact, it is best to refrain except for specific training scenarios.
Mutual gaze can certainly deepen connections between dogs and their loved ones. But like many forms of nonverbal communication, it must be used carefully and considerately to build trust.
Frequently Asked Questions
Why do some dogs dislike eye contact?
Some dogs perceive direct eye contact as threatening or challenging, especially from strangers. Prolonged staring triggers their instinct to defend themselves. It also removes their ability to avoid confrontation through submissive gestures like looking away.
Are certain breeds more bothered by eye contact?
Yes, breeds historically used for protection work like Rottweilers and Dobermans are more likely to react negatively to staring. Herding breeds also tend to be uncomfortable with prolonged eye contact due to their instinct to control movement with their gaze.
Does eye contact help strengthen bonds between dogs and humans?
In many cases, yes. Mutual gaze releases oxytocin and facilitates affection. However, eye contact must be appropriate for the individual dog and the context to have this positive effect. Staring at a stressed or unfamiliar dog is more likely to trigger reactivity.
Should you always avoid making eye contact with dogs?
No, brief eye contact and glances are generally fine when interacting with most dogs. Prolonged staring should typically be avoided with unfamiliar or anxious dogs. But playful, relaxed dogs often enjoy longer mutual gazes with their human companions.
How can I tell if a dog is comfortable with eye contact?
Signs a dog is comfortable with eye contact include a relaxed body posture, loose wagging tail, flat ears, and playful behaviors like the “play bow.” Dogs who enjoy staring will maintain or reinitiate mutual gaze. If the dog averts their eyes, yawns, licks their lips, or shows other stress signals, they are likely uncomfortable.
- Whether dogs care about eye contact depends on context, individual temperament, breed tendencies, and their relationship with the person interacting with them.
- Brief eye contact and short glances are least likely to cause issues when interacting with unfamiliar dogs.
- Prolonged staring can trigger fearful or aggressive reactions in some dogs but strengthen social bonds in others.
- It is important to “listen” to a dog’s body language and respect their individual preferences regarding eye contact.
- With patience and proper introduction, most dogs can learn to enjoy eye contact with their owners and close human companions.