Gazing Versus Staring

The difference between loving and threatening
By Karen B. London PhD, May 2015, Updated June 2021

There has recently been a lot of interest in people and dogs gazing into each other’s eyes and how this creates feelings of love. The evidence is compelling that this interactive behavior does enhance the bonding between us. I have no objection to this assertion, but it does make me concerned that these new findings will cause a problem.

It’s one thing to gaze softly into the eyes of your dog. It’s another thing entirely to stare at that dog or at any other dog. In fact, it’s potentially hazardous because staring is often considered a threat by dogs. So, I hope nobody goes around trying to bond with new and unknown dogs by looking them right in the eye. It’s a reminder that subtle differences in behavior can have vastly different meanings.

One of the first things I learned when I began to work with aggressive dogs is to pay attention to eye contact. This was especially important for me because I have big dark eyes and I tend to open them wide when expressing interest or surprise. It would be all too easy for me to scare the dogs I’m trying to help with my frog eyes. It has become second nature for me now to turn off my wide-eyed actions when I am around dogs. I take care not to look directly at them without squinting just a little until they are comfortable around me.

It’s because dogs are afraid of big eyes, especially when they are aimed directly at them, that many dogs react to cameras with big interchangeable lenses. It’s likely that our canine subjects perceive these lenses as giant scary eyes staring at them. Many dogs who are not particularly fearful or nervous freak out when faced with a new camera and a person enthusiastically pointing it at them often and for long periods of time. If a dog’s tendency when alarmed is to look away, cower or hide, that’s what may happen in the face of a big camera. If a dog is more likely to bark, growl and lunge when scared, then that may be the reaction you see when a camera is pointed towards that dog.

Has your dogs reacted fearfully to someone staring or to a camera?

 Image: iStock

Karen B. London, Ph.D. is a Certified Applied Animal Behaviorist and Certified Professional Dog Trainer who specializes in working with dogs with serious behavioral issues, including aggression. Karen writes the animal column for the Arizona Daily Sun and is an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Northern Arizona University. She is the author of six books about canine training and behavior, including her most recent, Treat Everyone Like a Dog: How a Dog Trainer’s World View Can Improve Your Life