Stare

September 03, 2022

One of the habits Zena has acquired is to stare at either Melissa or myself trying to get our attention.  I have mentioned Melissa gets up earlier than I do and often when Zena thinks I have spent enough time in bed she will sit outside our bedroom and stare at the door.  I am usually awake and messing with my phone and can hear her quietly snuffling outside.  At other times the door will be open but rather than entering the bedroom, Zena will stop at the door and stare around the chest of drawers at me.  When she does, I will call her, and she will immediately come to the bed, followed by her licking my foot.  The other favorite time for Zena to stare is when I am working at my desk.  Zena will come into the office and place her chin on my thigh and stare up at me with those sad eyes.  It is obvious that she wants something.

When I looked online, I found dogs have many reasons to stare at humans, but most of the time they are trying to communicate with us or waiting for us to communicate with them and if you pay you can learn to tell the difference.  You can also teach your dog other ways to communicate that are not so puzzling if the stare bothers you.  One reason dogs stare is because they are reading our cues.  They sense our moods, follow our pointing gestures, and read information about what is going to happen next.  They stare at us waiting for us to do something that will impact them.  That is true for going on walks, meals, play time, car rides, and more.  Dogs also look for clues to perform specific behaviors like “sit” or “down” as these are chances to earn treats, especially if they are trained with positive reinforcement like Zena.  The stare also occurs when your dog is trying to get your attention or tell you something, like it is time to go out.  Some dogs will stare to manipulate their owners and get something they want, and this is common when begging at the table.  The dog will learn that if they stare long enough, their owner will hand over a scrap.  If you are aware of your reaction to your dog’s stare behavior and eliminate any rewards, your dog will eventually try new behaviors to get your attention.

Your pup also uses eye contact to express positive and negative emotions.  A stare for their wolf ancestors is considered threatening and rude, and some dogs retain that trait.  That is why you should never stare down strange dogs or hold dogs still to stare into their eyes.  If a dog gives you a hard stare, with unblinking eyes and a stiff posture, back away and do not make eye contact.  You might even see this in your own dog when there is a bone or other valued treat at stake.  Resource guarding often comes with a hard stare and aggressive body language.  Still, a lot of dog staring is an expression of love.  Just as humans stare into the eyes of someone they adore, dogs will stare at their owners to express affection.  In fact, mutual staring between a human and a dog releases oxytocin, known as the love hormone.  This chemical plays an important role in bonding and boosts feelings of love and trust.  This is the same hormone released when a new mother looks at her baby.  Is it any wonder our dogs like to stare at us?

THOUGHTS:  Dawn Kovell is an animal trainer and behaviorist from Marin Humane Society who says like the stare, interpreting dog nuzzling is also about context.  When your dog meets a stranger, they will sniff at them and if they like the smell, will nuzzle and rub their head against the person as an invitation of friendship.  However, when your dog nuzzles you, they could be establishing ownership.  Dogs have scent glands in their faces so when your dog nudges you with his head, he is marking you with his scent to signal other dogs to keep off.  Much like licking, nuzzling is a pacifying behavior that in dog to dog interaction ensures their survival and wellbeing.  Puppies nuzzle their mothers for comfort and when they grow up, they nuzzle their human owners.  Just like with your dog, it is considered rude for humans to stare at another.  Humans do have the ability to talk to each other to communicate.  That is a skill that needs to be perfected and practiced often.  Act for all.  Change is coming and it starts with you.

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