By Jill Fanslau
When your dog wags his tail, you know he’s probably happy or excited. When he rattles his bowl, you know he’s probably hungry. And when he spins in a circle by the door, you know he definitely wants to go outside. But what the heck does it mean when he stares at you from across the room?
While you may never be able to figure out exactly what’s running through his head, you can get some insight into the reason behind his gaze.
The Science of Staring
“Looking into one another’s eyes can increase hormones associated with social bonding,” says Laurie Santos, the director of the Yale University Center for Canine Cognition. One of those hormones is oxytocin, commonly referred to as the love or cuddle hormone.
Numerous studies have shown that mutual eye-to-eye contact between two humans—a mother and her baby; a husband and his wife; two friends—can strengthen their bond and help infants develop early social skills. And Japanese researchers have found that when dogs gaze into their owners’ eyes, the look activates the same hormonal bonding response.
Of the dog-owner duos that spent the most amount of time staring at each other, the dogs experienced a 130 percent rise in oxytocin levels, and owners saw a 300 percent increase, the study reports.
It’s the first time this positive hormonal bond has been discovered between two different species, and it may explain how dogs became man’s best friend. Dogs have learned how to exploit the neurochemical system that humans use to create and maintain relationships, says Santos.
The researchers also tested wolves raised by humans. The wolves typically avoided eye contact with their owners, but when they did gaze at them, the oxytocin levels in both species hardly increased. That may be because eye contact is typically hostile in most species, says Santos. And sometimes, staring at another animal can even invite an attack.
Why Is My Dog Staring at Me?
This eye-to-eye bond lets your dog interact with you in a way that no other animal can. They can look at where you point, reading your intentions, and also seem to be able to read your emotions—when you’re happy, sad, excited, etc. But just as a gaze between two humans can be nuanced, so can that of a dog. He may not always be staring at you with deep love, affection and emotion.
“Dogs may look at us because they want to head outside for a bathroom break, or because we’ve done something novel,” Santos says. “Context matters for dogs, too.”
For most healthy dogs, staring is normal. However, long periods of staring at walls or into space may be an indicator of Canine Cognitive Dysfunction (CCD), a severe thought-processing problem that’s similar to Alzheimer’s disease, in senior dogs.
If this behavior appears alongside a number of other CCD symptoms—getting lost in familiar places around home, not responding to his name or familiar commands, frequently trembling, either while standing or lying down, wandering aimlessly around the house—take your dog to a veterinarian for a thorough physical and neurological exam.
Currently, less than two percent of older dogs are clinically diagnosed with CCD. However, it may be highly underdiagnosed. A 2009 study in The Veterinary Journal found that it may be found in as many as 14 percent of dogs over the age of eight and, because pet owners aren't aware of the symptoms, they don't report them to their vet.
While there is no cure for CCD, a vet may be able to offer ways you can help your dog cope with it. And if your dog does not have CCD, know that his staring, while at times unsettling, might just be a show of his affection and deep connection with you.