Whale Eyes in Dogs — What It Means When the Whites of Your Dog’s Eyes Show

A dog with wide eyes, or whale eyes, looking scared.
A dog with wide eyes, or whale eyes, looking scared. Photography ©sadetgr | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Dogs communicate with very subtle body language cues, using their entire bodies to tell us how they’re feeling. So, when you notice your dog displaying wide, bulging eyes that show the whites of his eyes, you’re noticing whale eyes in dogs.

What Are Whale Eyes in Dogs?

Scared Dalmatian with wide eyes, whale eyes.
What are whale eyes in dogs? Photography ©Image Source | Photodisc via Getty Images.

One often-missed but very telling body language cue is the whale eye in dogs. When a dog feels frightened or threatened, his eyes widen, exposing the white parts of his eyes (the sclera). It’s not so different from how we humans react to fear: we stiffen and our eyes get real big. When dogs display whale eyes, you may also notice facial tension and a closed mouth. Anyone who sees whale eyes in dogs needs to pay close attention — this dog could bite!

Why Would You See Whale Eyes in Dogs?

Humans will notice the whale eye in dogs if they get frustrated and yell at a dog — or even when training a new task, trick or cue. Whale eyes may even show with something seemingly simple, like grooming or trimming your dog’s nails for the first time.

If you’re rushing the teaching, the dog may easily become confused or fearful. So, if you see the whites of his eyes showing, it’s time to check in with yourself to see what you’ve done to confuse or frighten your dog. Slow down, take a deep breath and start anew. Maybe show him the nail clippers and treat a few times, then just touch his nails with the clippers and treat. The point of doing anything new with a dog, especially a puppy, is to go slowly, paying attention to the dog’s comfort level and adjusting what you’re doing to keep him from becoming stressed or fearful.

Dogs May Give Whale Eyes If a Stranger Hugs Them

Dogs might display whale eyes if they're uncomfortable in a situation.
Dogs might display whale eyes if they’re uncomfortable in a situation. Photography by Jill Breitner.

One of my biggest concerns is when a child hugs a dog. Most dogs don’t like being hugged, or held too tightly. If they feel like they don’t have a way out, they could bite.

In the image above, you can see that the dog isn’t very happy about being hugged by this child. If this situation were to continue without interruption (such as an adult asking the child to release the dog), the dog may become so uncomfortable and stressed that he feels he has no way out and therefore bite.

Not All Whale Eyes in Dogs Are Bad

Oscar being playful with a toy on his head. This is NOT a whale eye. This is play.
Oscar being playful with a toy on his head. This is not a fearful whale eye. This is play. Photography by Jill Breitner.

Not all whale eyes in dogs are equal — and not all whale eyes in dogs are bad. Some dogs are masters at not moving their heads, only their eyes. If you have a dog like this, then you have a clown in your home. I know because I have one.

Oscar, my Labradoodle, loves to keep his head still while looking at me by just moving his eyes. I’m sure I reinforced this behavior because it makes me laugh every time he does it. So, for Oscar, when he shows the whites of his eyes, he’s playing and wanting to engage. I’ve taught him some silly tricks that encourage him to show me the whites of his eyes. For example, placing a soft toy on his head and asking him to wait very still before I release him to throw the toy off his head and catch it mid-air. While he’s waiting for me to say “OK,” he’s shifting his eyes back and forth and up and down, with anticipation while exposing the whites of his eyes. We love this game.

How to Tell the Difference Between Fearful Whale Eyes and Playful Whale Eyes

The dog is hiding with whale eyes, expressing fear. Image from Dog Decoder smartphone app. Illustration by Lili Chin.
The dog is hiding with whale eyes, expressing fear. Image from the Dog Decoder smartphone app. Illustration by Lili Chin.

So, how can you tell the difference between a dog who is frightened or a dog who’s playing? Look at all the body parts talking and the context in which it’s happening. Are you playing chase and your dog stops and looks at you without raising his head, showing the whites of his eyes with a tension-free wiggly body, open mouth and almost smiling face? This dog is playful, not frightened.

Here’s another scenario. Let’s say you are upset with your dog because he ate your sandwich that you left in the car while you ran an errand. Now, you are scolding him and the whites of his eyes are showing. This dog is afraid. Remember, punishing a dog for an unwanted behavior will only increase his fear and it won’t stop the behavior. Choose your battles and don’t punish your dog for your mistakes. Teaching dogs what we want them to do instead of punishing them for unwanted behaviors will make for a much more trusting relationship between you and your dog.

Other Ways to Decipher Whale Eyes

Still not sure if the whale eye is playful or fearful? These other body language cues signify that the whale eyes mean your dog is afraid:

  • Stiff, tense body
  • Ears out, to the side and back
  • Closed mouth
  • Lip licking or tongue flicking
  • Looking away
  • Hiding or walking away
  • Indirect staring or direct staring

What to Do About Whale Eyes in Dogs

If you even think you see whale eyes, err on the side of caution. Stop what you’re doing, assess the situation and proceed to redirect the dog to something else to alleviate the stress.

If the whale eyes are directed toward a child, tell the child to stop what she is doing and remove the dog from the situation until the dog relaxes or play his favorite game to change the dynamic. Then, please check in to see how you can make changes for the future to keep your dog from being stressed, afraid or uncomfortable. When we humans become more proficient at reading dog body language, our relationships and bonds deepen. After all, isn’t this why we share our lives with dogs?

It’s critical to learn how to read dogs, so we can help them when we see that they are stressed, anxious or uncomfortable in any situation. One of my favorite books, Decoding Your Dog by a group of veterinary behaviorists, describes body language and behaviors in great detail. If you want an on-the-spot reference of dog body language, the Dog Decoder smartphone app, used by veterinarians, educators, trainers, and anyone who loves and cares for dogs is available in iTunes and Google play; ready when you need it. Children love it, too!

Thumbnail: Photography ©sadetgr | iStock / Getty Images Plus.

Tell us: Have you ever witnessed whale eye in dogs? In what sort of situation?

Learn more about different types of dog facial expressions here >>

Jill Breitner is a professional dog trainer, award-winning writer and dog body language expert, loving and living her life on the west coast, USA. She is the author of Dog Decoder, a smartphone app about dog body language. Jill has been teaching gentle handling/basic husbandry skills to clients and their dogs for 40 years, to be your pet’s advocate for a happier and stress-free life. Join Jill on her Dog Decoder Facebook page.

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13 thoughts on “Whale Eyes in Dogs — What It Means When the Whites of Your Dog’s Eyes Show”

  1. Pingback: Introducing Your New Dog to Children – Veteran Companion Animal Services

  2. Pingback: Whale Eyes in Dogs — What It Means When the Whites of Your Dog's Eyes Show – dogcaz.com

  3. My younger boy does this. We adopted him in August 2018 at about a year old (a guess), and he’s always been an odd, kinda nervous boy. He seems overall friendly with most people, loves my husband while I am certainly his “human”, but he seemingly does the whale eye with everything. During play with his fur-sister or us, or if we even look at him funny, he shrinks back and does a sideways glance. Like he’s guilty about something and he hasn’t done anything. I think he is, what I could call, “sensitive”. 🙂 But we sure do love our goofy pup! <3

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  5. When I hit my easy chair in a 2 seat sofa, I usually end up with a couple dogs there too, but the one who will give the ” whale eyes” is my rescue who “owns me” so to speak. When he has his head on my lap or is on my lap (56 lbs. of him) and a cat wants to get up on the arm of the chair, he turns his head sideways and gives that look. Sometimes he will growl, I have taught him to “kiss the cat” with licks to it’s ears. I did this petting him, saying” mommy loves” petting her, then “mommy loves” petting him, several times then “kiss the kitty” and he learned. But, he still gives the whale eyes saying ” Mommy is mine!”

  6. start using treats….as u start to open the apt. door, and while walking to the elevator, always with a sit command, while @ the elevator, on the way down and when u leave the elevator. Make sure the treat is super special, like real beef or chicken. If u seem in control your fur baby will feel safer. Good luck

  7. Pingback: The Meaning Behind Your Dog’s “Whale-Eyed” Expression | Pets & animals

  8. Elaine Rutland-Smith

    Take a step back and retrain your furbaby, it is a new environment (home and high rise) for her too – one she is not used to .. relax and make it fun and take plenty of treats .. take it one step at a time, be patient and do not rush .. was she just used to a ground level garden .. it is quite a transition to an apartment and some things we tolerate for a time before our real feelings show .. good luck

  9. Both our doxies use their eyes to communicate…especially in one particular situation. We have their biscuits in a jar on a side table right next to the couch. If they think it’s time for treat (which is almost always), they’ll tr to catch our eyes. When they do they’ll deliberately move their eyes from looking at us to looking at the jar. They’ll do it several times until we either give them a treat or say “Not now.”

  10. I get these whale eyes when i want to walk my dog. We moved from a house in PA to an apt in NY. The community is just starting to get dogs so I would always hear oh THAT’S a big dog! So I would opt to walk my furbaby during less busy time in the building. But now ai find myself chasing her around the house and even dragging her out the door to relieve herself. I think she picks up my fear, dread the elevator ride -15 floors, scared/shy of neighbors in the hallway, smell too many dog scents out back or all the above. ANY SUGGESTIONS PLEASE HELP!

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