The eyes are the window to the soul, so they say. Eyes give way so much about how any of us feel and this includes our dogs. Not only do eye shapes tell us whether they are worried scared, happy and confrontational but the dog’s pupil size will tell us whether they are experiencing internal stress. With so much information available on such a small area of the dog’s anatomy, it’s surprising how few people seem to recognise the intent of a dog with a hard stare. let’s take a look at what it means.
A hard stare from a dog means that they place full focus of their vision on the object of their attention. Not in a friendly relaxed manner though, like the look of love, but in a tense expression often with a furrowed brow. There may be tension between the eyes and short, tight lips. Sometimes the eye whites will show – in the shape of a half moon.
Dogs have two involuntary reactions when they are stressed. The first is a pain relief response – they snatch themselves away from an area which is causing pain without thinking – for example an injection at the vets. The second is a dilated pupil. The pupil dilates without the dog choosing or knowing and that dilation means the dog’s fight, flight or freeze reaction has been activated – which means they feel under threat.
Their choice is then to confront the threat or try to appease it. Typical appeasement actions are side ears, lick lips, looking away and making themselves smaller. The dog who is desperate to avoid confrontation in the situation will avoid eye contact at all costs. The dog who is confident in confrontation will try hard to achieve eye contact as a prelude to more overt confrontation. So, when we add the dilated pupil to the hard stare, the furrowed brow and the tense lips, we are seeing a dog who is issuing a direct threat and we really need to change the situation quickly, because their next move is likely to be follow through of that threat.
If you are ever in this situation – space is your best friend. Give the dog as much physical and emotional space as possible and this will give them chance to calm down. Only then begin to think about how to deal with this behaviour in the long term. Take a look at the images for some common eye shapes.