Students sometimes ask, “What does it mean when your dog stares at you?” It’s a good question. It could mean the dog stare is attentive and loving, your dog is waiting to do something with you. But not every dog stare is friendly. A dog stare can also be creepy, a warning to you that she’s unhappy. The only way to interpret your dog’s stare is to look at the rest of her body language.
If your dog’s stare is accompanied by wiggly, happy body movements, she probably wants to do something fun. If the dog’s stare creepy, more of a glare, be careful. A dog’s stare with a tense body and lowered head may be a warning that she’s unhappy. Understanding why your dog stares at you requires that you learn to read her body language.
Adoring Dog Stare
If your dog’s stare is soft and relaxed, she’s probably just gazing at you adoringly, happy to be hanging out with her favorite human. This is a good look, and not one you need to do anything about other than reciprocate with your own soft eye contact while you tell her how much you love her. If you want to divert the adoring stare, give her a food toy, like a stuffed Kong, a snuffle mat, or one a food puzzle toy.
Happy Dog Stare
A dog with an anticipatory stare is telling you that she’s eagerly waiting to engage with you. “Let’s do stuff!” Your dog’s body is tense, but a happy tension. She’s a coiled spring, waiting to leap into action when you grab her toy, Frisbee, or ball; pick up her leash; or open the door to let her outside. This is also the stare you’re likely to see if you’ve reinforced your dog’s eye contact during training. You can return this stare with happy eye contact of your own.
Communication Dog Stare
This is another good stare. Your dog is trying to tell you something. Maybe she needs to go to the bathroom. Maybe someone is hurt or in trouble. There is some urgency in this stare, and some excited body language, and your dog may be insistent. If you try to get her to do something else she’s likely to look at you with a “No, that’s not what I wanted” look. For this one, you’ll need to watch her body language and try to figure out what she is telling you.
Hard Dog Stare
This stare is actually creepy – not to mention, the one you never want to see. Use extreme caution if you see her glaring at your with a tense body. You might also see some of these other body language warning signals: a stiff tail (wagging or not), still body, closed mouth, dilated (wide) pupils, a lowered head, ears pricked hard forward or pinned backward, and body position shifted forward or back. This is an “agonistic warning,” meaning your dog is telling you in no uncertain terms to back off. She’s not happy. You might see it if she’s guarding a valuable resource, or otherwise feels trapped, cornered, or threatened in some way.
If this happens, look away from her and slowly turn to the side. When she relaxes, slowly move away. Do not approach or confront her. When the crisis has been averted, figure out why she felt threatened by you, and implement a behavior modification and management program to prevent future incidents. If you need help with this, contact a qualified, experienced, force-free training professional.
Whichever stare your dog is giving you, it means something, so pay attention!