He hailed from Qinghe 清河 (in modern Hebei) and was a nephew of Empress Dowager Dou 竇太后. During the reign of Emperor Wu 漢武帝 (r. 141-87 BCE); he was appointed counsellor (xiangguo 相國) to the Prince of Wu 吳, but he resigned because of sickness.
Under Emperor Jing 漢景帝 (r. 157-141 BCE) he was made supervisor of the household of the Heir Apparent (zhanshi 詹事). Because he voted against the appointment of Liu Wu 劉武, Prince of Liang 梁王, as heir apparent, he incurred the wrath of the Prince's mother, Empress Dowager Dou. In order to avoid bad consequences, he withdrew from office.
During the rebellion of the Seven Princes, Emperor Jing appointed him general-in-chief (da jiangjun 大將軍). During the war, he was able to hold the city of Xingyang 滎陽 against the armies of the princes of Qi 齊 and Zhao 趙. After the successful defeat of the rebels, he was awarded the title of Marquis of Weiqi 魏其侯 and was appointed Grand Mentor to the heir apparent (taizi taifu 太子太傅).
In 140 he was appointed Counsellor-in-chief (chengxiang 丞相). Dou Ying promoted the state support of Confucian scholars, which contradicted the Empress Dowager's inclination towards Daoist advisors at the court and the prevalent political mood of the Huang-Lao thought 黃老. She forced him to retire.
In 132, his friend Guan Fu 灌夫 was arrested and accused by Tian Fen 田蚡. Dou Ying memorized to the emperor to rescue Guan Fu, but Tian Fen intrigued against him and urged Emperor Wu to arrest Dou Ying. He was sentenced to death and executed.