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Most people love looking at their dogs! Not only are our pups cute, but we get plenty of satisfaction seeing them play, relax or just be plain silly.
But despite how much we like the idea of looking at our dogs and even maintaining eye contact, our dogs don’t seem to be as interested. In fact, some dogs will completely avoid eye contact whenever possible.
What’s going on here and why won’t some dogs look you in the eye?
Direct eye contact can occur in some canine playtime situations, but outside of those scenarios eye contact is almost always a sign of aggression, tension, or confrontation. Many dogs learn that human eye contact isn’t a threat (especially from their owners) but some dogs will have a harder time getting comfortable with eye contact.
That’s the quick answer but we’re going to dive deeper into everything you need to know about eye contact and your canine.
3 Reasons Why Dogs Avoid Eye Contact
Let’s take a look at the 3 most common explanations for a canine’s careful approach to eye contact.
Reason 1: Eye Contact Feels Like An Uncomfortable Challenge
It’s totally normal and even encouraged for humans to make eye contact with each other. In fact, some eye contact is considered a sign of confidence, strength, and respect. So much so that one study found a correlation between eye contact and how a potential employer perceived a job applicant’s qualifications!
But things can change quickly if instead of making occasional eye contact, that hypothetical job applicant stared directly at the interviewer the entire time. In the human world, eye contact is one of those social systems that we take for granted. We instinctively know when there’s too much eye contact or too little.
However, that distinction isn’t so clear for other animals, including our dogs. Instead, eye contact is a sign of direct conflict. According to the folks at Forbes, “Direct eye contact in these canids [dogs and wolves] is often a behavior in establishing or challenging dominance, so staring at a dog or wolf makes them uncomfortable, if not irritated.”
Studies have found that dogs are more capable of making eye contact with humans than their wolf cousins which is a direct result of 30,000 years of domestication. But even thousands of years of domestication haven’t completely removed the instinct to avoid eye contact and many dogs still see the experience as some sort of challenge.
Most domestic dogs will quickly look away from your gaze as a sign of submission or at least in the interest of avoiding any direct challenge. Less socialized dogs or naturally assertive dogs may hold the gaze but they won’t be happy about it.
The connection between eye contact and conflict makes sense when you think of it in more primal terms. Think about a lion stalking a gazelle or a hawk tracking down a rabbit and you can quickly see how eye contact isn’t exactly friendly. The same is true with people and imagine walking through a crowded mall only to notice that one person is staring directly at you…and not looking away.
In other words, eye contact is a sign of interest and in the case of the lion and gazelle and it’s not always mutually beneficial interest.
We assume that because we love our dogs, they’d see our eye contact as an extension of that love but that’s not how some dogs are hardwired or socialized. So keep that in mind not only with your own dog but especially when you meet a new pooch! Avoid staring too much and instead, take a soft gaze when it comes to meeting a new canine.
Don’t be offended when your dog doesn’t meet your gaze and instead remember that eye contact can be a loaded experience for dogs!
Reason 2: Your Bond May Not Be Strong Enough
Studies have found that eye contact between dogs and humans can release a powerful hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is sometimes referred to as the “love hormone” as it can be found in a variety of intimate situations including interactions between mother and child.
In other words, the release of oxytocin during eye contact indicates that your pup is feeling the love!
But if the bond between dog and human is weak, then we’ve already seen how eye contact can instead feel more like a challenge than a sign of love.
For some context, think about your own life and the difference between direct eye contact from a stranger and someone you love. The former could be uncomfortable while the latter could help you release your own oxytocin.
So if your dog doesn’t feel comfortable with your direct eye contact, it could be because they’re still building their bond with you. Don’t push things or force your dog to make eye contact and instead focus on slow and steady progress with your pup.
Reason 3: Your Dog Just Hasn’t Learned Yet
So far, we’ve looked at eye contact from the perspective of evolutionary history and basic hormones.
But the explanation for dogs avoiding eye contact could potentially be even more simple in that some dogs just may not have learned the basics of human eye contact. It could be that your pup is a little on the slow side or they just haven’t been taught that eye contact is a good thing.
Most puppies that grow up in the home quickly learn that eye contact is a great thing. It usually leads to attention of some kind like petting, treats or even better a walk.
But dogs that grow up with little human contact or live outdoors most of the time will default to the canine assumptions around eye contact which include avoiding looking directly into another animal’s eyes.
In most cases, dogs can be taught to handle eye contact but for some dogs, it may never be a comfortable experience. This is especially true for dogs that were raised with little human eye contact.
It’s Probably Not Guilt
Many folks suggest that dogs will avoid eye contact when they’re feeling guilty and we’ve all seen dogs experience what looks like guilt when they’re scolded for getting into the trash or urinating on the carpet.
But is this really guilt?
According to most modern research, it’s unlikely that dogs are actually feeling guilt even if it sure looks like guilt. Instead, studies find that dogs are simply reacting to human body language by taking on signs of submission and fear like hanging their head low, tucking their tail, and avoiding eye contact.
When you realize that your dog doesn’t have a sense of justice or an awareness that they’ve done anything wrong you can see how problematic triggering this guilt response can really be. Instead of communicating with your dog that they’ve made a mistake, you’re instilling a sense of fear and anxiety in your loyal canine companion which is not something you want to do!
So skip the guilt trip and focus on other more reliable methods for modifying your dog’s behavior like positive reinforcement.
What If My Dog Suddenly Won’t Look At Me?
If your dog is usually happy to stare in your eyes but all of sudden won’t meet your gaze then it’s worth investigating.
Again, it’s very unlikely that it has anything to do with guilt and instead your dog is reacting to your body language or verbal communication. Raising your voice, sudden movements or anything else that your dog could interpret as aggressive are obvious explanations.
But the explanation could be more subtle too and wearing a mask or holding an unusual object could make your dog uncomfortable and lead them to avoid your gaze.
Pay close attention to your dog’s body language to get a better idea of what may be motivating them to look away. Try sitting down or taking on more relaxed postures and see if that encourages your dog to look at you.
Assuming your dog usually looks at you, you can eventually figure out why they won’t look at you anymore with some trial and error. Without stressing your dog out, test out different locations, postures, and approaches to figure out exactly what’s going on when your dog avoids your eye contact. With enough time, you can pinpoint the problem and fix it.
It may not be a quick process but considering that discomfort or fear could be the cause of your dog’s avoidant eyes it’s worth the effort to figure out.
Should You Worry About My Dog Avoiding Eye Contact?
In the majority of cases, you shouldn’t worry about your dog’s preference to avoid eye contact.
As we’ve already established, avoiding eye contact is a normal part of the canine social structure and outside of a play bow dogs will rarely stare deeply into another dog’s eyes. This is especially true for dogs that don’t have a strong bond.
In other words, it’s completely normal for your dog to avoid eye contact and it’s not something you need to force. While a weaker bond is a possible explanation, even dogs that are deeply bonded with their owner may still prefer to avoid eye contact.
If your dog falls into that category, it’s better to accept their preference rather than force eye contact on them. However, you can still teach most dogs to not only accept eye contact but even enjoy it with enough patience.
How To Teach Your Dog To Make Eye Contact
Teaching your dog to make eye contact can sound complex but it may be even easier than teaching your dog to sit!
Using positive reinforcement, you’ll teach your dog that looking into your eyes means they get a reward in the form of a treat which will be more than enough of a reward for most dogs. The video below does a perfect job explaining the process but if your dog is naturally hesitant about looking into your eyes make sure to go slow and don’t overwhelm your dog.
Once your dog has the basics of the “Look At Me” command, you’ll want to practice it outside the training environment and in the real world. That means asking your dog to make eye contact on walks, at the dog park or anywhere else you go with your pup.
While this might just seem like a novelty at first, the “Look At Me” command can be extremely practical and a great way to get your dog’s attention while they’re reacting to other dogs or people. Once you have your dog’s attention, you can introduce any number of other commands and this can be especially useful if you’re out and about with multiple dogs.
Is It Bad To Stare A Dog In The Eyes?
If you’re unfamiliar with the dog or you’re still building a bond, it’s a bad idea to stare a dog directly in the eyes. Steady eye contact should be reserved for dogs that you’re already familiar with and for dogs that understand eye contact is a sign of affection.
We’ve seen how eye contact can be a sign of confrontation but we’ve also seen how eye contact between canines and humans can release powerful “feel good” hormones. So when it comes to eye contact, context is extremely important.
The distance between you and the dog is another critical factor and while some dogs may be comfortable with eye contact from across the room they may not look you in the eye if you attempt to make eye contact while very close to their face.
Not only can this make dogs uncomfortable but it can also be dangerous for you if you try this with an unfamiliar dog.
Don’t be offended if your dog is uncomfortable with eye contact!
While it could be a sign of a bond that’s still forming, it’s completely normal for dogs to be at least a little uncomfortable with long, direct eye contact. Never force your dog to make eye contact with you and instead focus on positive reinforcement techniques to teach dogs that not only is it okay to make eye contact with you but it can be a very good thing!
Most dogs can learn to enjoy eye contact with a little patience on your part!
What do you think? Are you ready to teach your dog how to make eye contact?