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Why Do Dogs Make Eye Contact With Humans?

Well-socialized dogs make eye contact with humans because they have learned to associate humans with good things. If you look at the interactions among dogs, you may notice how dogs generally tend to avoid direct eye contact especially with dogs they do not know well. The fact that dogs make eye contact with humans is likely an ultimate proof of trust. However, consider that sometimes eye contact with humans (or other dogs) may be evoked by negative emotions and hard stares may be a sign of impending aggression.

Dogs make contact with humans quite often throughout the day. If you watch the interactions among dog owners and their dogs, you will likely notice how dogs make eye contact with humans quite frequently. 

This behavior comes naturally, and takes mostly place in dogs who have been well socialized and whose owners have taken the time to instill a relationship based on trust and a strong bond. 

However, as mentioned, eye contact with humans may not always be considered friendly. Many dogs will look away, turning their head when you look at them directly in the eyes. This doesn't mean these dogs dislike eye contact, it is just a dog's instinctive way of informing that they are non-confrontational. On the other hand, some dogs may react with aggression when they are looked in the eyes. 

Distinguishing friendly staring from the non-friendly form requires looking at the dog's over all body language (not just one piece!) and the context in which the eye contact takes place. 

Dogs Making Soft Eye Contact With Humans 

This dog is looking up adoringly into the owner's eyes

This dog is looking up adoringly into the owner's eyes

Soft eyes take often place when dogs experience positive interactions with humans. This kind of direct eye contact is made by well-socialized dogs who are friendly and confident. The pupils of the eyes may be larger or smaller based on lighting conditions. 

In general, the eyes may present with dilated pupils if the dog is in dim light (dogs see well in semi-dark) or the eyes may have smaller pupils if the dog is in bright light. Emotions also play a role when it comes to pupil dilation and you may therefore see large pupils as well when dogs are scared or excited. 

The overall body language of dogs making soft eye contact with humans is loose and relaxed. You may see a relaxed tail wag, curving of the body and distance-decreasing behaviors such as coming closer and pressing the body against the person in hopes of being touched. 

Many dogs learn through experience to make eye contact with humans through positive associations. These dogs have learned that eye contact with humans is not to fear and they feel comfortable about it. Dogs can also be trained to make contact and hold a gaze with their humans on cue. 

"While the threat of aggression prevents mutual gaze among wolves, chimpanzee and monkeys, for dogs the information to be gained by looking us in the eyes is worth enduring any residual, ancient fear that a stare may cause an attack. ~Alexandra Horowitz, Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know

Dogs Making Hard Eye Contact With Humans 

This dog is showing some degree of hard eyes with a growl or beginning of barking. Perhaps this dog is intimidated by the camera? Only context can provide the true answer

This dog is showing some degree of hard eyes with a growl or beginning of barking. Perhaps this dog is intimidated by the camera? Only context can provide the true answer

Hard eyes often take place when dogs experience negative interactions with humans. This type of direct eye contact may be seen in dogs who are under-socialized, fearful and insecure.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs who make hard eye contact are not being dominant. From a scientific standpoint, dominance is not a personality trait, but rather it's a descriptive term used to depict the outcome of a behavioral interaction between two individuals.

According to the Association of Professional Dog Trainers "Dogs that use aggression to "get what they want" are not displaying dominance, but rather anxiety-based behaviors, which will only increase if they are faced with verbal and/or physical threats from their human owners ."

The accompanying body language of dogs giving a hard stare is generally tense. The dog's body is often still with little or no movement. The dog may be on the defensive (ears back, lowered body, posture leaning back, tail between legs almost as if trying to shrink) or on the offensive (ears forward, standing tall, posture leaning forward, tail wagging stiffly almost as if trying to look bigger and more threatening). 

Further distance-increasing behaviors such as growling, barking and snarling are often seen and may exacerbate if the human dares to come closer despite the warning .

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A hard stare needs to be taken seriously as it may trigger a bite. Approaching a dog giving this type of eye contact may lead to a potential bite!

Training Dogs to Make Eye Contact on Cue 

A dog doing some lovely "attention heeling."

A dog doing some lovely "attention heeling."

Not all dogs make eye contact. Indeed, there are many cases of dogs who, for some reason of another, avoid making eye contact. This may be just because these dogs are shy, they are being polite and trying to avoid conflict or they simply haven't had the opportunity to learn that it's safe to do so with humans they can trust. 

The good news is that dogs can be trained to learn to make eye contact and a great perk of training this is that this behavior can come handy in many situations such as when a dog is distracted and you need your dog's full attention. 

A big perk that comes along for the ride is the fact that many dogs who are taught to look in the eyes, may do so more and more often in their interactions with their owners. You may notice dogs looking into their owner's eyes when they need guidance or are asking for permission to do something. Checking-in with an owner is a wonderful learned behavior!

To train your dog to make eye contact, here is a brief guide. Bring a high-value treat at your eye level. As soon as your dog looks at you, say "yes" or click the clicker and” provide the treat. Your "yes", or click of the clicker is marking the behavior of looking into the eyes and tells your dog that a treat is coming contingent upon the looking behavior. Repeat this exercise several times.

 Next, increase criteria. Hold the treat at eye level longer, initially for an extra second or two. This will cause your dog to look at your for a bit longer. Repeat several times gradually increasing the length of eye contact until you can hold your dog's stare for 5 seconds. 

Next, add a verbal cue (like "look! or "watch!") or maybe  a sound. I like to use a kissy noise. Say the cue or make the kissy sound and again bring the treat at eye level. Repeat several times. 

Now, it's time to fade the food lure. In other words, say the verbal cue or make the sound, but this time without a treat in your hand. When your dog looks at you, say "yes" or click your clicker and feed a treat from your other hand. Repeat several times.

Finally, gradually start fading the act of bringing your hand at eye level. Say your verbal cue or make your kissy sound and gradually, make the hand gesture less and less evident until you can stop doing it all together and your dog still manages to look into your eyes. 

  Over several sessions, you will then continue to build on the length of your dog's behavior of looking into your eyes and you can add distractions such as asking your dog to perform the behavior in the yard, then on walks, then in spite of people or other dogs walking by, and maybe, if you practice enough, and are up for the challenge, even in face of those pesky squirrels!

Warning: If you want to train eye contact but have a dog who you are not too familiar with or becomes anxious or aggressive upon making eye contact, play it safe and seek the help of a dog behavior professional

Now That You Know...

As seen, dogs make eye contact with humans for various reasons, and it can be due to positive or negative emotions. Here are some tips and ideas about dogs making eye contact with humans. 

  • If you notice a soft stare from your dog, evaluate what your dog may want from you. Maybe she wants to be pet or is wondering if you can play with her. Asking her to sit before giving affection or before tossing a toy may be a good way to incorporate some training (this is called the Premack Principle by the way). 
  • If the soft eye stare comes from a dog you do not know, always ask the owner first if you can pet the dog and where he likes to be pet the most. 
  •  Never stare in the eyes a dog you do not know. To some dogs, direct eye contact is perceived as a threat and it may evoke aggression. 
  • If you notice a hard stare from a dog, the best thing to do is to take the threat seriously. A hard stare is a dog's way of saying "stop doing whatever you are doing or else..." So the best thing to do is to take notice and stop reaching towards the dog or the item a dog may be guarding. If the dog is on a property or in a car, don't approach that property or car. If your dog delivers a high stare to a human, keep that human safe by increasing distance.
  • Seek the aid of a behavior professional if your dog is showing you (or other people) the hard eye. You may need to change the way you interact with your dog and work on creating positive associations. Make sure the professional you choose uses humane, force-free behavior modification techniques. These dogs need as less stress as possible!
  • In the meanwhile, make sure to implement a safety management plan preventing your dog from being put into situations that evoke the behavior.



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