By Melissa Locker
February 17, 2020
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As I sit at my desk writing this story, my dog Steve is staring at me. He has had breakfast, gone outside for a walk, and even chased a ball up and down the hallway until he got distracted by a stray piece of kibble he discovered near his bowl. Despite having all his needs met and the occasional scratch on the head, he’s still staring. While Steve and I have spent more than a few years getting to know each other and understand each other’s signals, his stare is a bit of a mystery. To try and figure out what he might mean with all this intense doggie eye contact, I am turning to the experts to figure out what it means when your dog is staring at you.

According to Dr. Patty Khuly writing at Vet Street, the most likely reason that your dog is staring at you is because the pup thinks food is forthcoming. Like, any second now. Really. “Some dogs take staring to extremes, following their owners around with baleful eyes as if expecting links of sausage to fly from their human’s fingertips,” Dr. Khuly writes. The mere thought of an impending snack could be more than enough to get some dogs to sit and stare patiently just in case you break with tradition and suddenly decide to give them a spoonful of your breakfast cereal. If you’re eating and your dog is staring, mystery solved.

That said, dogs can — and do — stare at their owners for reasons that have nothing to do with food. According to dog whisperer Cesar Milan, dogs have plenty of reasons to keep a close eye on their roommates. They could need to use the bathroom or have a hankering for some fetch-filled fun or extra exercise. Some dogs may simply want attention, whether a pat on the head or a scratch on the belly. They may also be waiting for direction as they try to determine what you want them to do. “They don’t want to miss a possible cue or get yelled at for doing something wrong,” according to Milan’s website. The site also suggests that occasionally dogs can simply be confused by their human’s behavior. “Sometimes they’re just curious about what the heck we’re doing!” the site says.

If your dog is making some serious eye contact, go ahead and stare back into your pup’s eyes. It’s a great way to bond as PetMD.com reports that Japanese researchers found that when dogs gaze into their owners’ eyes, the look activates the same hormonal bonding response as when a parent looks into their child’s eyes. It even sparks the release of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, for both humans and canines. “The dogs experienced a 130% rise in oxytocin levels, and owners saw a 300% increase, the study reports,” writes PetMD.com.

Be aware, though, that thanks to their wolf ancestors, some dogs consider staring to be both threatening and rude, according to the American Kennel Club. Limit your soulful stares to dogs you know. “If a dog gives you a hard stare, with unblinking eyes and a stiff posture, back away and don’t make eye contact,” says the AKC. Even the friendliest dog on the block can stare angrily if there is a valuable treat or favorite toy at stake. It’s a behavior called “resource guarding” and can lead to aggression. If your pup regularly exhibits such behavior, consider talking to a dog trainer.

If your pup is getting older, you should also be aware that extended periods of staring at walls or into space could be a sign of trouble. According to PetMD.com, such long staring could be an indicator of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), a rare but serious disease akin to Alzheimer’s. If you’re concerned, speak to your vet. It’s far more likely though that your dog just wants a pat and a snack. So, just enjoy basking in your dog’s undying love and unwavering attention.