A hard stare in dogs is something that is often discussed about among several owners of dogs. Being aware of this form of communication is important so that you can be better tuned into your dog's emotions.
Not all hard stares are created equally though. As with many other bodily cues coming from your dog, paying attention to the context, and the accompanying body language, is important so to obtain a more accurate insight into what may be going on in your dog's mind.
So let's discover more about hard stares in dogs and what the may mean.
What is a Hard Stare in Dogs?
A fixed, hard stare in dogs is also known as "hard eye." The terms "hard eye" and "hard stare" in dogs are therefore used interchangeably to depict a dog who gives direct eye contact with a certain level of intensity.
Often dogs delivering a hard stare are described as maintaining sustained eye contact for at least two seconds or longer. The "hard eyes" are often described as being glassy, still and unemotional. Some dog owners describe the eyes as being "glazed over."
The accompanying body language may also be still, with a raised tail and an overall display of negative feelings. The mouth is typically closed, the ears are tilted forward. Some dogs will accompany the hard stare with a snarl (teeth showing) and growl.
Direct Eye Contact is Considered Rude in Dogs
If you carefully watch the interactions among dogs, you may notice that dogs avoid to make direct, sustained eye contact.
In most cases, when dog eyes make brief contact, one dog or the other may look away or even turn the head or their body away.
Dogs may also struggle with direct eye contact from humans. Indeed, one of the most common things we are told to do is never stare an unknown dog directly in the eyes.
When we stare directly into a unknown dog's eyes, we risk them perceiving it as a challenge or threat. Some dogs may just look away to remove the pressure, and avoid a confrontation, while others may even react defensively.
Did you know? Border collies use their "stare" to control a flock of sheep. By staring at the sheep, they exert psychological pressure to get them moving.
Sheep appear to respond to this stare naturally because it mimics a wolves' tactic of selecting a victim in the herd and starring at it before chasing.
The technical term for the border collies' stare is "giving eye." Intrigued? Discover more here: why do border collies herd?
Dogs Can be Taught to Enjoy Human Eye Contact
While direct, sustained eye contact is perceived as rude or threatening by dogs, the good news is that dogs can be taught to accept and even enjoy eye contact coming from the humans they trust!
This natural hesitancy can therefore be overcome by creating positive associations with human contact.
What Does a Hard Stare Mean in Dogs?
When a dog delivers a hard stare with its accompanying tense body language, his or her focus is oriented towards the specific party that is on the receiving end of the stare.
Generally, in most of these cases, a dog's hard stare can indicate reactivity, or even aggression.
It's a dog's way of asking for distance or for you to stop from whatever you are doing, however it can have several other meanings.
Following are several more in depth causes of hard stares in dogs.
1) "Stay Away from My Territory"
The hard stare when directed towards an intruder or unknown dog, may come to mean "Stay away, don't you dare to come closer or else..."
In this case, it's a distance-increasing sign aiming to send the intruder away.
You'll therefore see this type of hard stare in territorial dogs who do not like people or other dogs near his turf.
If you ever notice a dog giving you this type of hard stare, whether it is your dog or not, you should back away immediately, but do so slowly, warns dog trainer Sarah Hogdson, in the book: "Modern Dog Parenting, Raising Your Dog Or Puppy to Be a Loving Member of Your Family."
"Stay Away from My Possession"
In a similar fashion, you may notice a hard stare in dogs who are prone to resource guarding.
Resource guarding can take place when dogs are protective of food, bones, toys, water and food bowls, sleeping areas. Some dogs may even act possessive of people just as they would do with a valuable bone.
In such dogs, the hard stare may come to mean "Stay away, don't you dare come closer to my possession, or else..."
"Stay Away From Me"
A dog may also exhibit a hard stare when he wants to be left alone. The dog may not be feeling well or he may not feel comfortable around a specific person or dog approaching.
The hard stare may be the only signal before the dog manages to move to next course of action which may consist of lunging and biting.
Missing the hard stare may therefore lead to dog owners assuming that their dog "attacked another dog out of the blue" or bit a person with "little notice."
If the behavior is recorded and played back though one may notice the still, hard stare a split second before the dog went on the offense.
A Form of Ritualized Aggression
While a hard stare is classified as a sign of aggression, if we think about it, it's really a way to avoid "real aggression."
In other words, the dog is asking for distance and is doing so without using force. It's like a toddler "using his words" rather than getting physical by pulling the hair of another toddler.
When other dogs or people understand the meaning of the "hard stare" and respect it, by politely moving away, conflict is avoided and the tension dissolves.
Problems mainly arise when another dog or person doesn't understand the seriousness of the hard stare.
The lack of understanding of the hard stare, what it means, and its seriousness is therefore a main reason why many people and children get bitten by dogs.
Situations That Trigger Hard Stares in Dogs
As mentioned, many dogs perceive direct eye contact as threatening. As humans who use eyes a lot to communicate, we may often engage in behaviors that puts us at risks for bites.
For example, kneeling down to pet a dog or sitting on the floor next to them, can make us appear less intimidating as we're not looming over them, but it puts our eyes at their level causing direct eye contact and this can be perceived as threatening.
Children being shorter, are often at a dog's eye level and their approach and direct eye contact can be perceived as challenge.
Many dogs struggle with direct eye contact and direct facial contact. When our dogs are cornered or when we hug them or try to kiss them, this can cause them to react defensively as they have no way to retreat.
These dogs may not be able to deliver a hard stare, or we may miss it, so it may look like they just "bite out of the blue" with little or no warning.
Dogs who are resource guarding objects or people, dogs acting territorial (of a home, yard or car), dog who don't feel well and dogs who don't want to be approached, may turn defensive, giving a hard stare and trying to bite.
Send Calming Signals to Dogs
If you are ever in a situation where you come face-to-face with an unknown dog, it is best to avoid direct eye contact.
Instead, turn your head slightly and use your peripheral vision to move away with your body facing the sideways.
If you must maintain some eye contact, do so very briefly and with peaceful intentions.
For instance, you can "soften the eyes" by lowering your eyelids and not stare in a threatening way, suggests Norwegian dog expert Turid Rugaas in her book: " On Talking Terms with Dogs, Calming Signals."