Americans tend to use a lot of eye contact when interacting with each other. Looking someone in the eye is seen as a show of confidence. We make eye contact to demonstrate we are paying attention, we are interested in what the person is saying, or we care about them. However, if looking turns into staring it can become an uncomfortable situation.
People tend to stare at dogs a lot. It may be totally innocent on the part of the human, but it can cause great concern for the dog. For dogs, long eye contact is too forward and may be mistaken as a challenge. Most submissive dogs will look away in an attempt to deflect the challenge. Staring at a nervous dog may cause the dog to move away from you. However, staring may cause other nervous dogs to decide to take on the challenge and come after you aggressively. I recommend looking at a dog you don’t know, or is obviously nervous, for no more than three seconds before looking away. If you feel you need to keep an eye on the dog, then do it using your peripheral vision, and avoid directly looking toward the dog.
Many people will introduce dogs for the first time by bringing the dogs face-to-face. This is usually not a problem with puppies. However, in adult dogs this will cause an aggressive response in about one-third of the meetings. A first meeting between adult dogs should be nose-to-tail. And a meeting should only take place when the dogs are on leashes and completely under control. Discourage any sniffing or eye contact that lasts more than 3 seconds. If one or both of the dogs engage in interaction lasting longer than three seconds, gently pull the dogs apart for a moment. Then, allow them to interact again if all else is going well with the introduction. However, if one dog is looking at the other dog with a laser-beam stare, the dog is not ready to physically interact.
If you have a dog who is shy when meeting people, instruct the human to ignore the dog. This means no looking, no touching or talking to the dog. In most cases the dog will approach the human within five minutes to sniff them. The person should only interact with the dog when the dog lingers near them and repeatedly touches the person with the paw or nose.
If your own dog is comfortable with you then eye contact is not typically a big issue. But you certainly can use eye contact when correcting certain negative behaviors. Just as with people, strong and glaring eye contact communicates that you are not happy with them.
One exception to the eye contact information written here is in regard to the extra exuberant, happy-go-lucky dog; usually adolescent puppy. This type of dog may interpret long eye contact to be an invitation to play or get attention, and the next thing you know the dog is jumping all over you. In this case, use eye contact (or the lack of it) to help keep your dog from getting too excited.
The power behind eye contact is something most humans don’t understand. It is an issue even with those who work with dogs in a professional capacity; like veterinary clinic staff, groomers, and boarding kennel workers. Nervous and hyper dogs are much easier to manage if everyone would just stop staring.