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Understanding Dog To Dog Eye Contact

Updated on July 5, 2011

Understanding Eye Contact Between Canines

Dogs, as natural pack animals, have developed universally understood ways to communicate with each other. A dog uses vocalizations in the form of growls, barks and snarls, as well as physical posturing and movement to communicate issues such as dominance or submission within the pack. Even more subtly they also use eye contact, which is considered to one of the most basic forms of communication.

A simple eye can show you which of these dogs is dominant and which submissive

Understanding Dominance And Submission

Almost everyone is familiar with the term "alpha dog" or pack leader, but many people mistakenly think that this is the most aggressive, largest and strongest male dog in the pack. Typically the alpha dog is a male, but it is not uncommon for females to also assume this role within groups of dogs, especially domesticated pets. The alpha leader has used aggression or threats of aggression to reach this level of leadership, but they rarely resort to fighting once the pack hierarchy has been established. This prevents injury and constant fighting within the pack that would ultimately defeat the pack structure.

Submissive dogs, on the other hand, aren't weak or timid; rather they are the dogs that are responsive or acknowledge the position and role of the alpha leader. If the other dogs in the pack were continually challenging the leader, the pack would be in constant chaos and discord, again defeating the whole purpose of functioning as a group.

In essence the dominant dog or dogs within the pack manage or maintain their position by mutual agreement and without constant challenges. One of the ways that this leadership and pack structure is maintained is through eye contact between the dogs within the pack.

What The Eyes Are Saying

The more dominant dog in any group or pack uses eye contact as a way of managing the other pack members. Direct eye contact is seen as a challenge to the alpha dog. The pack leader may also use direct eye contact to signal displeasure with another dog. This goes all through the pack or group of dogs from the highest levels to the lowest level of the very young puppies or new dogs to the group. Eye contact between socially equal dogs signals interest and even excitement and is often seen when greeting each other or when playing.

I'm Boss Dog And I Know It

If you watch carefully when two strange dogs approach each other they typically do one of two things. The dominant dog will make clear eye contact with the other dog, approaching directly from the front or slightly to the side. The other dog, if he or she is more submissive, will turn his or her head slightly, avoiding direct eye contact. The submissive dog may even drop his or her head and avoid all eye contact. There will also be corresponding body posturing with the dominant dog raising his or her hackles, extending the neck and tail up and pricking the ears to appear as big as possible. The submissive dog will crouch down, possibly even rolling over to expose their belly, or at the very least lower their head, ears and tail in a signal of non-aggression or threat.

We Are About Equal

Two dogs that are both dominant types or both equally submissive types will attempt to determine which one is the alpha within the meeting. Typically the two aggressive dogs will approach each other both with coats fluffed, head and tails up and hackles bristling. They often approach directly from the side and make rapid, darting eye contact like they are attempting to size up the opposition without actually making a direct eye contact challenge. Often they keep their heads parallel to each other, only making eye contact in quick glances. They will continue this behavior until one decides the other one is slightly bigger or more dominant, at which point one will back down and assume the submissive, eyes lowered position. They may also choose to fight to determine alpha position, so owners need to be very careful at this point.

Two submissive dogs are exactly the opposite. They will avoid all eye contact and may seem to ignore each other until they have a chance to sniff and interact with the other dog to ensure they are not dominant.

What This Means To Owners

Modern dogs, despite their domesticated lives, still follow all the rules of pack behavior in their interaction with their humans as well as with other dogs. By monitoring how your dog is looking at other dogs, it is possible to determine several different factors. These can include:

  • Aggression – staring means aggression and dominance.
  • Submission – avoiding eye contact means your dog acknowledges the other dog's dominance.
  • Challenge – a dog that is glancing continually or making short burst of eye contact with another dog may be sizing them up for a challenge.
  • Mistakes – a dog that won't make eye contact with another dog during play may be acknowledging a social blunder that was made.

Watching your own dog's eye contact with other canines can also help you understand how well they are socialized as well as their general temperament and position within the group of dogs.

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    • Michael Shane profile image

      Michael Shane 

      8 years ago from Gadsden, Alabama

      Fantastic Hub! Great Topic! I will have to follow you & read more....

    • Montana Farm Girl profile image

      Montana Farm Girl 

      9 years ago from Northwestern Montana

      Great hub!!! Great information!!! We have five dogs on our farm, two labs (father and daughter) and three 'crazy' min pins!!! They definitely all have their 'places' and each are as different as night and day. Nitro is TOP DOG here...but, Zazzy knows better!!! lol

    • YoJDawg profile image

      YoJDawg 

      9 years ago from Arroyo Grande

      Good hub, I have a German Shepherd and we actually communicate with eye contact a lot. I think its funny at times but it really helps because she knows when I am serious or not. It also helps when she meets new dogs because she wants to be dominate unless I give her a look telling her not to be so bossy. She thinks she is tough but she is just a big baby. She gets scared of the Chihuahua that chases her.

    • profile image

      Nancy 

      9 years ago

      There is not a whole lot of difference between dogs and dogs, cats and cats, or people and people. What is important when training an animal is the eye contact between the owner/trainer and the animal being trained.

    • Jerilee Wei profile image

      Jerilee Wei 

      9 years ago from United States

      Good information that more people should know about. Loved the beagle picture towards the end. We have an elderly one and her eyes tell us so very much at all times.

    • Pete Maida profile image

      Pete Maida 

      9 years ago

      I have this kind of behavior. It is interesting how the pack will organize and the alpha dog is not continually challenged.

    • Uninvited Writer profile image

      Susan Keeping 

      9 years ago from Kitchener, Ontario

      Very nice hub Julie. I'm more a cat person but this was educational.

    • BrianS profile image

      Brian Stephens 

      9 years ago from Castelnaudary, France

      Very good insight into dog behaviour, one I will bookmark and return to for future reference.

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