What Does It Mean When Your Dog Gives You “Whale Eye”?

Since dogs can’t use language to communicate with us, their body language plays a very important role. Even something as small as a flick of their paw and a sideway glance can tell us a lot about how our pets are feeling. A common behavior that many dogs show in certain circumstances is the “whale eye.”

While it’s an easily identifiable behavior, you might wonder what exactly it is and why it happens. Keep reading to learn more about this behavior and when it is a cause for concern.

What Is “Whale Eye”?

Animal behaviorists and veterinarians use the term “whale eye” to describe an expression where the whites of your dog’s eyes are visible. The term was coined by Sue Sternberg, an author and expert on dog aggression. It is one of the earliest indicators of fear or distress in dogs.

You might notice this in situations where your dog seems uncomfortable. They tend to point their head straight ahead and look from the corner of their eyes. This makes both pupils go to one side, exposing the whites of the eyes. It is similar to a gesture we also observe in humans, the “side-eye.”

How To Identify “Whale Eye”

ASPCAPro asks you to pay special attention to the whites of the eyes when judging your dog’s gaze. Although whale eye is a telltale sign that your dog is uncomfortable, seeing the whites of the eyes could also mean nothing. To accurately identify whale eye, pay attention to the position of your dog’s head as well.

If the head is positioned to look straight ahead while the pupils move to the side, this is whale eye. Dogs break eye contact just like humans when they are uncomfortable. They will avert their gaze but also take a peek from the corner of their eye to feel safe.

Noticing this behavior isn’t always a bad sign. When pets are exposed to new people or situations, they tend to feel anxious. You should keep an eye out for other behaviors to ensure your and your pet’s safety. We will share some methods to help your pet feel comfortable after listing a few reasons for this behavior.

Why Your Dog Is Giving You “Whale Eye”

There are many reasons why dogs engage in this behavior, but some of the most common are:

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Exposure to Unfamiliar People

It is likely that you first noticed this behavior when introducing your dog to someone new. Meeting new people is very different for our pets than for us. It is a variety of smells, voices, and behaviors that are completely new for them. Some dogs are also protective of their space, so letting a stranger in can be difficult and distressing for them. In this case, it is best to introduce your dog gradually to a new person. Let them set the pace of the interaction and take their time to adjust to the changes.

New Situations

If you’ve had your dog since he was a puppy, chances are he has mostly stayed inside with little to no interaction with other animals. A visit to the dog park, a grooming appointment, or even the addition of a new pet to your family can be challenging for your pet. In these circumstances, you should practice training your pet to stay calm and slowly introduce them to new scenarios. If your pet is very overwhelmed, you should remove from the situation immediately.

Meeting Children

Some dog breeds are great with children, such as the Labrador Retriever and the Bulldog. However, the same cannot be said for all dogs. Meeting children can be very overwhelming for dogs since they are not as understanding of an animal’s boundaries. Hugging a dog too tightly or tugging on their fur is bound to irritate even the most patient of pets eventually. You should carefully monitor all interactions with children and take your pet away if he starts showing whale eyes.

Resource Guarding

Resource guarding is an evolutionary behavior passed down from your pet’s wild ancestors. In the wild, animals have to fight for resources such as food and shelter. For the modern dog, this translates to behaviors such as discomfort when they are approached while in possession of something important to them.

This can include food, toys, a certain spot in the house, or even a person. All dogs show this behavior to a certain extent, and a mild form of it is giving you the whale eye. However, if your pet starts to show aggression, this is a matter that you should resolve with the help of a professional trainer.

Additional Signs To Look Out For

Whale eyes alone aren’t a cause for concern, so you should keep an eye out for other signs. Dogs are capable of expressing a wide variety of emotions using different parts of their bodies, such as their tails and ears. If you notice whale eyes accompanied by these signs, it is best to give your dog some space.

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A tense or rigid body and facial expression is a sign your dog is feeling threatened.

Licking the lips is a way to self-soothe and dogs practice this when they are very fearful or distressed.

If the ears are out, this means your pet is alert and feeling nervous about something.

Excessive yawning indicates fear and anxiety if accompanied by whale eyes.

Growling means your dog is very irritated and is demanding his space.

If the teeth are exposed, it is best to leave your dog alone. This usually happens when they are approached while eating or playing with their favorite toy.

What You Can Do

When you observe your dog or any dog you are interacting with giving you whale eyes, you should take a step back and give them their space. Whale eyes are the first sign you will observe in a dog that feels distressed or threatened. If you notice your pet doing this, the best thing is to leave him alone. In this situation, even petting your dog can cause more distress and lead to undesirable consequences. Dogs have boundaries just like humans do, and a constant neglect of their boundaries can lead to aggression.

If your dog acts this way in a certain situation, like meeting children or interacting with new people, you should avoid exposing them to such situations suddenly or entirely (if it’s too distressing). Most dogs require socialization and training from an early age to adapt to new situations smoothly.

Whale eyes are a common behavior and not a worrying sign, unless accompanied by aggressive behavior. If your dog shows you whale eyes while snarling or growling when guarding food/toys, consult a professional trainer.

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Susan Dorling

I am a pet expert with years of experience working with a variety of animals. From dogs and cats to birds and exotics, I have a deep understanding of their unique needs and behaviors. I am dedicated to helping pet owners provide the best care for their furry friend.