What Does the “Whale Eye” Dog Body Language Mean?

A dog “whale eye” is one of the many ways that a dog communicates with humans. Dogs can’t speak English, so they have to find other ways to let us know how they’re feeling. Paying attention to your dog’s body language is the key to keeping your dog and everyone around them safe. Yet, some cues like the whale eye are harder to distinguish if you’re not looking for them.

What is a Whale Eye?

“Whale eye” refers to the action where the whites of your dog’s eyes show. It occurs when your dog is feeling anxious or uncomfortable, so they look away without moving their head or they bulge their eyes slightly. This creates a crescent moon shape in the whites of their eyes. It’s so subtle that humans often mistake it for a normal behavior, but it’s a clear sign of stress.

Yet, not all dogs are equal. Sometimes, dogs show the whites of their eyes without it being a true whale eye. If you have a brachycephalic dog breed, which is a dog with a flat face, their faces are often shaped differently than other dogs. So, breeds like Pugs and Shih Tzus might always have visible white in their eyes. Some dogs also learn to purposely look around without moving their head. Thus, if your dog is not in an uncomfortable situation and their not showing other signs of stress, then it’s not a true “whale eye.”

What Does Whale Eye Mean for Most Dogs?

In most cases, the dog whale eye indicates stress, anxiety, or discomfort. You will often notice it when dogs are put into stressful situations, such as when a kid is hugging them or when an unfamiliar dog is in their personal space. It could also happen if you yell at your dog or punish them. This stress could be caused by a variety of different things, but it’s almost always related to something that your dog sees as negative.

If your dog is showing a true whale eye, then they’ll likely show some of the following behaviors too:

  • Stiff or tense body
  • Ears back
  • Tail tucked
  • Licking or yawning
  • Hair standing on end
  • Dilated pupils
  • Growling

Even if your dog is only showing one additional form of discomfort, you should be cautious. Whale eye might seem small, but for dogs, it’s a big gesture to alert humans that there’s a problem. So, if you’re unsure what’s causing your dog’s stress, look around for a potential stress factor. In many cases, it could be something unnoticeable to humans like a sound in the distance or an unusual smell.

In some cases, a whale eye is the result of a guarding or territorial behavior. Your dog might show signs of stress or aggression if you come near their treats or toys. These actions can be harder to correct, so that’s when you might want to reach out of a professional dog trainer. Otherwise, you should be able to help your dog on your own.

What Should You Do if Your Dog Has a Whale Eye?

If you suspect that your dog has whale eye because they’re feeling stressed, anxious, or uncomfortable, you need to act on it. Ignoring the problem will only make it worse. Whale eye is one of the first signs of aggression for some dogs, so ignoring the problem could lead to a dog bite. Of course, that’s not always the case, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

First, check to make sure this behavior is triggered by something. If your dog often shows the whites of their eyes or if they’re playing, then these might not be causes for concern. However, if you determined that there’s a stress factor nearby, then you should eliminate it.

The most common stress factor for dogs is young children. Kids often don’t know how to properly interact with dogs, so they might smother them with love and attention. This might look cute to humans, but it can stress dogs out and cause them to lash out. So, if there are children nearby, make sure they know to give your dog space, especially if your dog has a whale eye.

Sometimes other factors like dogs, sounds, and smells can trigger the whale eye too. If possible, keep your dog away from these triggers. Dogs can often act out of the ordinary if they are feeling extra anxious, so make sure you keep your dog away from things that make them uncomfortable. If it’s something that can’t be avoided, slowly introduce it to your dog and always use positive reinforcements to help them feel better.

The one thing you should never do when your dog has a whale eye is punish them. Of course, no one wants their dog acting out or showing aggression, but they’re not doing it to be bad. They’re doing it to communicate with you. So, yelling at them or scolding them will only make them more stressed, making the whale eye behavior more frequent. Thus, you should always be gentle with your dog and help them overcome their anxiety and stress.

Final Thoughts

Whale eye for dogs is no different than other behaviors like growling, whining, and chewing. Dogs use these unusual cues to alert us of things. Dogs should never be punished for expressing themselves because that will only make them more confused and harder to train. So, please treat your dog with respect and pay close attention to their behaviors. It’s best for the safety of everyone involved.

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