This is a very common reaction when I am photographing dogs. The moment when they realize that I am staring at them. A moment that can go many different ways.
Eye contact changes everything. Space circle boundaries (which I wrote about yesterday) will expand if there is eye contact involved. Eye contact is huge in the dog world, it speaks volumes. Just last night I was in the kitchen and heard a sound out front. I went into the living room and froze, listening. When I did this Elsa got off the couch and watched. I then looked at her which made her go into an immediate sit. Seeing her reaction, I relaxed my body and bent down to have a snuggle. She'd seen my serious frozen posture and was curious; but the eye contact told her I was very serious so she sat which is her first sign of submission.
Many dogs are just not comfortable with human eye contact. It is a natural thing for them to veer away; especially if they are the timid or fearful type. That said, there are all kinds of different eye contact. When I get a new puppy I make sure that they learn about human eye contact being a good thing. But even now at almost 3 years old, Elsa is very aware of eye contact. If I hold her face close and look into her eyes; I can feel that she gets uncomfortable, not hugely, but she prefers if I look just to the side of her. It is a very natural response; especially in a dog so highly aware of body language.
Most people greet dogs by bending over towards them and looking directly at them. Even if a dog barks uncomfortably they will continue looking directly into their eyes asking "what's wrong?" A couple of years ago we had this exact situation at our house. Elsa was working the crowd as she does and stopped in her tracks when she saw a guy with a hat on. He leaned over starring directly at her and reached out his arms. This made matters much worse; she kept her eye on him for the remainder of the evening.
Eye contact is far more powerful than most people realize. A fearful dog will never approach if you look at them but turn your head and they will slowly come closer. I use a lack of eye contact in most of my training and I never give it when I first meet a client dog. I will glance around and use my peripheral vision; but keep direct eye contact for later when we get to know one another. Eye contact is so subtle that we can be sending so many messages to our dogs when we don't even know we are. t is the whole inferior human thing.
That same German Shepherd puppy in the park the other day (I wrote about yesterday) was very sensitive to eye contact. She would move in if Elsa and Hank were not looking at her but the minute that they did, she moved away. Eye contact can just be too much to handle in so many different situations. The laser beam eye contact warning is the first line of defense from a dog. It is very clear and dogs "get it."
Eye contact is powerful, use it with caution. Being that each dog is an individual; you must learn how your dog reacts to it and how to use it appropriately. It is an amazing tool for communicating with your dog. I use it regularly when Elsa is moving in too much on my food. Pushing or yelling does little to thwart a dog moving in on your food; but throw them a serious eye threat and they "get it," immediately. They may not heed the warning, that all depends on your relationship and training that you have done.
Humans just don't get dogs to the degree that our dogs get us. They can read us like a book. Us? Not so much. Take care where you stare, eye contact is a powerful tool.