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Whale eye: What it means when the whites of a dog’s eyes are showing

senior chocolate labrador wearing pink sweater and laying on sofa

A dog exhibiting whale eye could snap if you don't react properly

© RelentlessImages - Shutterstock

Dogs use body language to communicate with us. And if you’re trying to understand them, first take a look at their eyes - they’ve got a lot to say!

By Justine Seraphin

Updated on the

Dogs can’t talk, but that doesn’t mean they don’t communicate with us. In fact, there are many ways dogs tell us how they’re feeling - it’s just up to us to know how to read those signals. 

One of the most common ways dogs will communicate with us is by using their eyes. Relaxed eyes mean a dog is happy, while very still, staring eyes could mean a dog is being aggressive. But what about those sideways glares where you can see the whites (or sclera) of a dog’s eyes? This is known as ‘whale eyes’ and it’s very important to know what this simple body language cue means. 

What is whale eye in dogs?

‘Whale eye’ is a term used to describe a dog who is showing the whites of their eyes. This can happen as their eyes widen, or if they’re keeping their head still while looking in a different direction. The whites of their eyes will appear in a half-moon shape, either on the outer or inner side of the eye, or sometimes all around. However, your dog isn’t necessarily showing whale eyes every time the whites of their eyes show. Indeed, whale eyes also describe the state of mind your dog is in. 

What does it mean when a dog shows the white of its eyes?

Also known as ‘half-moon eye’, a dog with whale eyes is trying to tell you that they are afraid, worried, and/or feel threatened, and that you need to back off. You should take this behaviour very seriously as it could indicate that your dog will bite if you don’t react properly to their signal. 

How to tell the difference between whale eye and a false alarm

Sometimes, a dog can show the whites of their eyes without necessarily feeling stressed or scared. This is often the case with brachycephalic dog breeds, who have naturally big eyes, or with dogs who have drooping eyelids. Some dogs also have a tendency to move their eyes rather than their heads when looking around. If you’re wondering whether your dog is displaying whale eye or simply showing the whites of their eyes for no particular reason, look for other body language cues. Whale eye may be accompanied by the following behaviours:

  • Bulging eyes
  • Avoiding eye contact OR staring directly at you
  • Hiding or walking away
  • Lip-licking
  • Standing stiff
  • Keeping ears back
  • Growling

What to do about whale eye in dogs

If your dog is indeed feeling fearful or anxious, they are exhibiting whale eye in the hopes that you’ll pick up on their signal and ‘save’ them from whatever situation is causing them distress. This could be a child hugging them, another dog getting too close, or someone making too much noise, for example. 

If you see this body language cue, simply stop doing whatever is causing your dog stress. If anyone is close to your dog at this point, tell them to back away and give your dog some space. Once the main stressor has been removed from the situation, try to redirect your dog’s attention to something else, like a game, for example. 

If you don’t respond correctly to your dog’s signal, their behaviour could escalate into aggression quite quickly. As a responsible dog owner, it’s your job to make sure everyone in your home is educated about the subject to make sure this never happens!

Frequently asked questions

Why do dogs show their belly?

Why does my dog have crazy eyes?

Why should you not look a dog in the eyes?

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