'Whale Eye' Means Your Dog Is Stressed and Anxious

Posted by Christy Caplan
Whale Eye

My dog Sherman is a master at the whale eye and I learned about this behavior the first year after we brought him home from the humane society. Sherman would show us the whites of his eyes when he was stressed!

Do you see this behavior when your dog is feeling stressed? When your dog is feeling threatened (or stressed) you may see this or other signs. It's kind of like 'side-eye' for humans. When you hug your dog this may be the reaction that you get.

Whale eye is typically a sign that your dog is uncomfortable. We know it looks cute!

What are whale eyes in dogs?

Experts at Synergy Behavior tell us that whale eyes are typically paired with another behavior.

"Dogs who show this behavior are typically concerned about something that is going on around them. We often think of this behavior as an early warning sign that a dog is anxious as a situation, and that something needs to change so that the dog's anxiety is reduced."

Your dog's ears may be back and their body is tense. Your dog may even bite so be cautious when you see 'whale eye' in your dogs.

How should it be interpreted?

Well if you yell at your dog you may see this (you should never be yelling) or if someone is hugging your dog this is a common response. Most dogs don't enjoy hugs although many will tolerate it.

If your dog is guarding an object (toy or bone) or "protecting" it from another dog or human this whale eye may be paired with another behavior like growling. Remember that growling is an 'ok' behavior and warning from your dog. All these emotions are connected.

Dr. Marty offers some great advice.

"If you're trying to understand the emotions behind the whale eye facial expression, look for other signs of stress and fear."

  • Stiff, tense, "frozen" body and tail
  • Tucked tail
  • Ears out, to the side or back
  • Appeasement signals (like lip-licking or yawning)
  • Dilated pupils
  • Indirect staring or direct eye contact
  • Hair standing up along the spine (hackles)
  • Closed mouth (tight lips)
  • Growling

What should you do when you see this behavior? 

Stop and assess the situation. Determine what could be causing this behavior and look for the above signs of stress. Redirect your dog with high-value treats and remove either the object that's causing stress (protecting a toy) or discontinue the 'hug'.

If your dog has a habit of resource guarding you must with a positive reinforcement trainer on this so it's managed.

If you believe your dog is just being playful and isn't showing any signs of stress then there isn't anything to worry about but whale eyes are often paired with signs of stress so you'll need to check out the environment and remove whatever you think is threatening or appears threatening.

Always consider your dog's body language and dog's eyes when looking at the environment to see what might be bothering your pup. If you think there is something stressful in the environment and need help consult with a dog trainer or behaviorist. Just because they're wagging their tail doesn't mean there isn't an issue.

Did you ever see these signs of stress in your dog? Please leave in the comments if you see whale eye in your dog!  

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'Whale Eye' Means Your Dog Is Stressed and Anxious