Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Whale eyes in dogs, also known as half-moon eyes or eye flash, are one of the many facial expressions observed in dogs that professionals in the field are attentive for when assessing a dog's emotional state.
The good news is that you do not need to be a professional to detect whale eyes or other physical manifestations—all you really need to do is pay close attention to your dog's bodily cues and the context in which these manifestations take place.
For instance, did you ever get the feeling that your dog was giving you the side-eye when you’ve said or done something you thought might have offended him? In such a case, have you noticed that as your dog turns his head you catch a little sliver of the whites of his eye?
Jokes aside, this specific look was termed “whale eye” by author and dog aggression expert Sue Sternberg. Sternberg explained that a client of hers commented about how in whales, a good portion of their eyes show the white and the white tends to show no matter in what direction the head is turned.
Before we take a deeper dive into your pup’s eyes, let’s take a minute to familiarize ourselves with some key terms.
Anatomy of Your Dog's Eye
I don’t know what's the exact history behind various terms used for the different parts of the eye, but they probably originated from some words in Latin. Maybe back then, they thought pupil and iris and sclera sounded cool?
Anyway, the iris and sclera are the main parts of the eye we need to worry about when we talk about “whale eye.”
The pupil is the central part of the eye that takes in light and sends those signals to the brain to translate in images. It's that black looking circle in the middle of the eye. Dog pupils enlarge when it's dark and shrink in bright light. Interestingly, the pupil isn't really what it looks like, it's mostly a black hole located in the center of the iris.
The iris instead is the colored part around the pupil. When people say you have brown eyes or blue eyes, they're referring to the iris.
And then there’s the sclera, the white connective tissue that makes up the rest of the eye. Among humans, you can see large portions of the sclera because humans rely a whole lot on the eyes for communication purposes (emotions or other non-verbal cues)/
You may not have considered it before, but take a look at your pup and you’ll notice that there is only a thin ring of sclera showing in their eyes most of the time compared to humans.
Some researchers believe that, as humans domesticated dogs, dogs began to pick up on human eye movement and visual cues, too. After all, it’s a lot easier to tell someone where there’s food or danger without risk of becoming that food with a widened eye or by looking a certain direction.
Why Do Dogs Show the White of Their Eyes (Whale Eyes)?
First of all, let's look into some of the "mechanics" behind this facial expression. In other words, what triggers dogs to show the white in their eyes in the first place?
Whale eye comes out of an instinctual behavior of both wanting to look away (considering that direct eye contact means confrontation in the canine world), but also, at the same time, needing to keep an eye on what’s coming.
Whale eye may also be seen when dogs widen their eyes out of fear or as Barbara Handelman explains in the book Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, when the skin on top of the dog's head is so taut that it ends up stretching the dog's eyelids away from the eyes, exposing the white portions of the dog's eyes.
What Emotions Cause This?
Dogs may show a “whale eye” in a whole host of situations from being hugged or photographed or when they are guarding a toy or bone. In these types of situations, they may feel uneasy or uncomfortable.
Dogs in these situations may not understand the situation that’s happening or may feel threatened by something and therefore, tense up. It’s key to read the rest of your fur baby’s body language to see whether they really are showing signs of fear or stress in a given situation.
Signs Your Dog Is Getting Tense
Dogs hold many silent conversations when around us and it's up to us to capture signs that may be indicative of stress or fear. It takes a careful eye and some practice to recognize the most subtle forms.
- Stiffened body
- Tense facial muscles
- Licking lips or nose
- Aggressive pucker (air makes the lips look puffy)
- Ears back
- A growl
- Presence of a curled lip which exposes the dog's teeth
These are all signs your dog may be eyeing you or another dog out of fear, but what really triggers whale eye in dogs? Let's take a look at certain scenarios and situations that can trigger dogs to show the white of their eyes.
A dog who is trying to see something in the extreme range of his peripheral vision will appear to have whale eye because that is what happens anatomically when they eyes are turned to an extreme position.
— Barbara Handelman
Situations That May Trigger Whale Eyes in Dogs
These are situations that may cause stress in dogs and trigger them to show their whale eyes.
- Being hugged and kissed (many dogs aren't comfortable with this)
- Being photographed (the camera's big "eye" or closeness may cause dogs to feel unease)
- Being approached by a stranger or dog the dog is not comfortable around
- Being approached when in possession of a resource (food bowl, bone, toy)
Exceptions to the Rule
"Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," goes the saying (pun intended) and in this case, we need to evaluate other possible causes for whale in dogs rather than jumping into conclusions.
Because not every dog is the same (and let’s be honest, you wouldn’t want your fur baby to be like every other pooch out there), “whale eye” pops up for other reasons other than being a sign of anxiety or fear. Here are just a few.
Pain in the Neck
One of those other reasons could be pinched nerves in the dog's neck (and a needed trip to the vet to get them some relief). Because it hurts so much to turn the neck, affected dogs will move their eyes in a specific direction showing the white sclera.
Being Plain Lazy
You could also see whale eyes in your pup just being plain lazy and not wanting to move to look at someone or keep track of their surroundings. Your pup may be comfortably flaked out on the floor but may want to keep an eye on you and the kids just to be aware of your whereabouts, so they will just track you with their eyes rather than moving their head or body to follow what’s happening around them.
Crazy Play Faces
During play, dogs may assume some funny expressions and sometimes they may even have a crazy look on their face. You may, therefore, notice whale eyes when dogs play and turn their eyes in an extreme position.
A Sign of Uncertainty
You may notice some whale eye at times when two dogs are first meeting. Dogs try to avoid direct eye contact as that's perceived as confrontational, so they may keep the head still and turned a bit, but keep moving their eyes.
In this instance, the whale eye may be a way to avoid confrontation, but can also indicate uncertainty when the head is frozen momentarily. Some dogs may even turn their head again quick to snap or bite if the other dog "pushes it" engaging in some unruly, unappreciated behavior.
A Matter of Conformation
Some dogs are more prone to have additional sclera showing, which means they may not be bored, in pain or stressed out at all. It just may be what their eyes look like on a normal basis. Brachycephalic dog breeds with shorter snouts and shallower eye sockets (think pugs, Boston terriers or bulldogs) tend to have more sclera showing normally.
What to Do if You Notice Whale Eyes in Your Dog
Keep track of the types of situations that trigger your pup's whale eye and make sure you get them out of these situations quickly. Do they tense up when they’re hugged or when they see another dog? Try avoiding other dogs or physical contact for a while. Talk to a behavioral specialist for some other tips.
If your pup is around children a lot and you notice this behavior cropping up as kids interact or approach your pup, it’s a good time to have a little lesson with the kids about when it’s okay to approach a pup and when it’s time to walk away and do something else.
Keeping your dog safe and comfortable can also be a good lesson for your human children about respecting other’s boundaries.
Consider that ignoring a dog's whale eye may cause the dog to escalate and this may even lead to a bite. Punishing your dog for showing whale eyes doesn't do any good to address the root of the problem and may lead to a dog who will suppress his early warning signs, which can lead to unexpected biting.
If your dog is stressed or anxious or is showing signs of aggression, respect these signals and change the environment or stop whatever you are doing to prevent an escalation. Afterward, consider consulting with a dog behavior professional using force-free behavior modification to address the problem.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2020 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 28, 2020:
Hi Peggy, the term whale eye is quite intriguing indeed. The first time I heard it I was curious about it too.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 24, 2020:
I had never heard the term "whale eyes" in dogs, so was curious to know what you meant by it. Lessons learned! Thanks!
Heidi Thorne from Chicago Area on June 23, 2020:
I mostly notice this with a "are you serious?" type of look. ;) I'll be more on the lookout for it now!
Devika Primic on June 23, 2020:
I noticed this in my friend's dog and didn't ask why but now that you have written about it the hint in the eye has given me more reasons and definitively an informative hub of this topic.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 22, 2020:
My Rotties were also showing the less concerning version of "whale eyes" when their heads were down and watching us from different directions.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 22, 2020:
Hi Pamela, whale eyes in dogs is something that isn't discussed much, but it is sure an interesting topic.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 22, 2020:
Hi Peachy, yes, you are correct, that dog with the bone in the picture is very upset!
Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on June 21, 2020:
This is very interesting. I've noticed whale eye in my dogs occasionally, especially when they are lying down and relaxed and are following me with their eyes. I didn't know that the situation was called whale eye or all of its meanings. Thanks for sharing the information.
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 21, 2020:
This is a condition that is new to be. Thank you for all this good information, Adrienne.
peachy from Home Sweet Home on June 21, 2020:
I thought the doggie was glaring at someone because he was mad