Have you ever heard the term “whale eye” and wondered what the heck it means? Whale eye is that look your dog gives you when they’re looking away with their face and making eye contact with their eyes.
It’s kind of like side eye for humans. When a dog is giving you the whale eye, you can see the whites of their eyes.
Dog Communication 101
Okay, but what does it mean? To understand whale eye, you should know that dogs have an entire system of “secret signals” that can help us understand them. It’s true! Dog communication cues like yawning, lip licking, and looking away all mean specific things for dogs.
Dogs use body language to communicate with each other all the time. But when they try those same expressions on humans, we often miss the memo. If we want to better understand our pets and predict dog behavior, we need to study up on dog communication.
Here’s a perfect example of why. Whale eye looks adorable, right? Without knowing any better, you might just snap a photo and post it on Instagram.
But whale eye is usually a sign that your canine feels uncomfortable, anxious, or stressed.
It some cases, it happens right before a dog growls and bites.1
The Meaning of Whale Eye
Your Dog Is Feeling Threatened
Dogs’ eyes will appear more white in stressful situations (or situations that they deem stressful). If they feel threatened – either by you, another person, or another dog, you may see them make eye contact and give you whale eyes. If the situation escalates, they may growl or even bite.
When Your Dog Is Not Feeling Threatened
You Reinforced The Behavior
If your dog makes this face while you’re playing, and you smile and give them attention, you may have reinforced this dog behavior. In this case, your dog is just being a ham. Expect to see it again and again – many dogs will repeat behaviors that get a good reaction.
It’s Not Really Whale Eye
Sometimes, the whale eye look is by accident. Say you’re playing with your pup, and you throw a toy to one side. Your dog might face the toy and then look up at you to see if you’re going to grab it. By default, they’re giving you the side-eye.
But if you see your canine’s tail wagging and their face is relaxed with their mouth open, rest assured, that’s a happy, playful pup! 2
How To Interpret Whale Eye
If you’re trying to understand the emotions behind the whale eye facial expression, look for other signs of stress and fear.
- Stiff, tense, “frozen” body and tail
- Tucked tail
- Ears out, to the side or back
- Appeasement signals (like lip licking or yawning)
- Dilated pupils
- Indirect staring or direct eye contact
- Hair standing up along the spine
- Closed mouth
When You Might See Whale Eye…
Here are a few common situations that might lead to whale eye.
1. If you yell at your dog
If your pup chews something up and you run over yelling, your dog may give your whale eyes. Humans often mistake this for a look of “guilt.” It’s not.
What your dog is actually reacting to is your aggressive energy and eye contact – both things that make them feel stressed. They are doing their best to appear submissive to try to calm you down. Look for other appeasement signals like lip licking, yawning, or a full body shake.4
2. If someone is hugging your dog
Many dogs don’t like to be hugged in the way that people do.5 If someone – especially a child who might have less boundaries – is hugging your dog and you see whale eyes, break it up. Best case scenario? The dog is uncomfortable. Worst case? The dog might snap and bite.
Remember to look for other telling stress signals, like a closed mouth or low growl.
3. If they are “protecting” something
If a person or dog is getting too close to your dog’s favorite thing – a bone, a toy, or even you – they might make whale eyes.
Look for other signs of stress, like a closed, tense body, and tucked tail. This is called resource guarding, and it’s a common cause for whale eyes.6
What Should You Do When You See Whale Eye?
If your pup is playing…
If you’re pretty sure your dog is being silly or playing, there’s really nothing to worry about.
If your pup is reacting to something in the environment…
If your dog is reacting to something stressful in the environment (like that aforementioned hugger), do what you can to make the situation less stressful for your dog. Often it’s as simple as moving your dog away from the thing that is making them anxious.
You may want to practice desensitization if you notice that your dog has developed a fear of something. Pay attention to what’s causing the fear, and slowly introduce it in a low-pressure way.
For example, you could very lightly hug your dog, let go, and give them a treat as a way to prepare for unwanted hugs. Call a positive reinforcement trainer for help with this.
If your pup is resource guarding…
If your dog regularly makes whale eyes around food, a bone, or a toy when you approach, don’t ignore it. They may have a resource guarding issue.
In the moment, you can deal with this by redirecting your dog’s attention to something else and removing the object when they are distracted. If another dog, or a child, comes over to play, remove all bones, toys, and food bowls.
You’ll want to work with a qualified positive reinforcement trainer on resource guarding issues.
Dogs with this issue are likely to show aggression and bite (yes, even your sweet dog!) so do not delay.
A good trainer will work with your dog over a few sessions and then show you how to continue the training on your own. Your dog is still a very good dog, they may just need a little help!
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