Dogs convey their emotions and thoughts in a lot of different ways. They're communicating with each other and with us, but we're not always sure what they're trying to say.
Whale eye is an example of dog communication. This is canine body language that gives you and other animals a clue as to what the dog is feeling and thinking.
What is Whale Eye in Dogs?
"Whale eye" is a term dog trainers use to describe a dog's body language when the whites of his eyes (the sclera) are visible. The dog will avert his head slightly, but his eyes stay fixed on something or someone. The whites of his eyes will appear in a half-moon shape, usually at either the inner or outer side of the eye, but sometimes all around. Whale eye is sometimes called "half-moon eye."
Whale eye isn't always easy to detect in all dogs. The eyes of brachycephalic dogs (dogs with short muzzles) may show a bit of white due to their conformation, and any dog may simply look quickly to the side, which briefly uncovers their sclera. If the dog isn't showing any other signs of agitation, what you're seeing may not actually be whale eye.
Signals that May Appear With Whale Eye
A dog exhibiting true whale eye generally will display some other signals of stress as well. You may notice appeasement gestures like lip-licking or yawning. The dog's hair may be standing up along his spine. He might also growl a warning or freeze in place rigidly.
What Whale Eye Means in Dogs
A dog exhibiting whale eye is usually expressing anxiety and discomfort with the current situation. This dog is stressed and possibly even fearful. Whale eye can be a sign that the dog will soon become defensively aggressive. An anxious dog is more likely to bite. If you notice this type of dog body language as you're approaching a dog, back off until the dog relaxes and becomes more comfortable, or at least until you can figure out what's going on.
Take stock of the dog's surroundings without approaching. Is there another dog or cat in the vicinity? Is a stranger approaching? The anxious dog may hear something that you can't hear yet, like footsteps outside approaching your door. A child may be reaching for the dog's favorite toy—or worse, a dog chew or treat.
A dog may exhibit whale eye if he is uncomfortable with what someone is doing to him, like being hugged, being petted in an area he doesn't want to be touched, getting examined by a vet, or getting his nails trimmed.
What to Do When a Dog Exhibits Whale Eye
Your dog is hoping you notice his eyes and can pick up on the message he is sending. He wants you to do something to fix whatever is wrong. This is always your best course of action if you can identify the problem.
If it could be something you're doing, simply stop. If another dog is approaching in a public area, lead your dog away. Keep in mind that your dog may also be tense, so you might have to coax him to move.
Scolding your dog is useless and will probably upset him further. How would you feel if you tried to whisper something urgent in someone's ear only to be rebuked? When your dog exhibits whale eye, the problem isn't with him—it is usually something external.