Canine Body Language: Whale Eyes

Whale eye refers to a body language signal where the dog shows the whites of his eyes. This is a warning signal and is often accompanied by hard eyes, freezing, stiffening up, and/or growling.

P1020916

Obviously, this is somewhat breed specific. Many brachycephalic (short-nosed) dogs, such as Pugs and Shih Tzus, will naturally have the whites of their eyes exposed due to the structure of their skull. However, if they begin to show more white than normal or if you notice other warning signals, they are likely displaying whale eyes.

Layla tells a friend's adolescent Shorthair puppy to back off when he gets too rowdy. Photo by A Dog Spot.

Layla tells a friend’s adolescent Shorthair puppy to back off when he gets too rowdy. Photo by A Dog Spot.

If you see your dog displaying this body language, back off and figure out what prompted it. Was your dog guarding something? Was he uncomfortable with how you were touching or interacting with him? Is he sore or experiencing pain?

Photo by Megan Nelson

Photo by Megan Nelson

Whatever you do, make sure you never punish a dog who is displaying warning signals. Instead, figure out why he is warning you and do something to change his emotional response to whatever was upsetting him so that it no longer bothers him.

Photo by akeg

Photo by akeg

What situations has your dog displayed whale eye in? Please share in the comments below!

26 responses to “Canine Body Language: Whale Eyes

  1. My terrier sometimes looks at me from the corner of her eye (and displays the whites) when she is half-lying on the floor, head on the floor, bottom in the air, apparently wanting her back scratched. Is she inviting a rub & a scratch or am I mis-reading her intention??

    • Heather, it could be either!

      In a situation like yours, I would recommend looking at the rest of your dog’s body language. All body language signals are contextual, and both warning and affiliative body language tends to occur in a cluster with other signals. If she looks stiff or stressed during these times, she probably wants to be left alone. On the other hand, if the rest of her body language is soft and loose she probably does want to be rubbed.

  2. I can’t think of a time that my older dog has done this, but the younger one does every time someone trims his nails. It’s the only thing he really hates. You can touch his feet and play with his toes with no problem – unless he sees the clipper in your hand!

  3. Laura and Amadeus

    My pup does this when he is trying to play with a dog at the park and a dog much bigger than him goes to sniff his butt (especially Danes). He doesn’t really want to interact with them, but he can’t NOT watch, either. Once they go away, he easily goes back to playing with the original dog.

  4. I’ve seen Gizmo do ‘whale eyes’ when he was concerned or unsure of something, but never knew what it was called…Thank you for teaching me something new

  5. I am a professional trainer and teach a seminar on dog body language but I have to say that my new puppy totally has me totally confused when it comes to whale eye. He does an extremely submissive greeting, lowered body and head, groveling at the human’s feet and then flopping over to show his belly. While he is wiggling around on the ground (tail wagging), belly up, he is displaying very pronounced whale eye. At first, I thought he must be nervous. After all, the submissive groveling is to make sure that I understand he does not want confrontation, right? So, I would ignore him, do a look away, make sure not to loom over him, etc. Then, invariably, he would jump to his feet, nudge my hand, and flop back into more groveling with that crazy whale eye going on. This would continue until I would rub his belly and give him some love. So I don’t know if he realized early on that whale eye gets pets and a soft happy voice from people and that has become his attention seeking strategy? OR is whale eye sometimes not stress-related? I am so confused now after years of feeling like whale eye was cut and dried! When he IS stressed and wants to cut off social conflict, he does not roll over. He runs to a corner, stiffens up and tries to hide his face under furniture or anything nearby. It is very clear he does not want social contact. The stiffening isn’t a freeze, like he is about to spring out and bite. It is like a shutting down. Very sad. He does it when it is time to go on a car ride or if something scares him.

    • Hi Dana,

      Would it be possible for you to get video of this behavior? Without seeing what’s happening it’s difficult to give you any feedback, although it sounds like over-the-top appeasement in a puppy who’s very socially affiliative but lacks confidence. I’d love to see what’s going on – it sounds very interesting!

      Thanks,
      - Sara

  6. What about it for exited or fixated dogs.
    If you take a photo of a dog catching a treat in the air they can have similar eyes.
    Dogs playing with toys can also show it to some degree.
    Dogs can also give sad eyes which show a lot of white but without the other signs.

  7. This signal is actually similar to the reaction of humans, We also flare our eyes when angry or afraid.
    Like in humans, I also think there’s a difference between a ‘sideways glance’ and whale eyes, I.e. when the dog is just looking to the side and the white is exposed contrary to the eyes ‘flare’ when he’s angry.
    I guess It’s a much more visible sign in dogs, because they have a much smaller visible area of the sclera (white of the eye) than humans. So obviously when you spot it – it can mean bad news (:

  8. I have a four year old blue nose he was a rescue. the only info i have on him is that his owner went to war and left him with a “trusted friend”. This friend neglected him and starved him. When he was picked up he weighed just 35 pounds. He does’t play with our female because she makes him nervous being that she is very high strung. He doesn’t enjoy the back yard and will weight as long as he can to go potty. Had severe separation anxiety that has gotten much better with time. He is incredibly loving and snuggly. In fact thats all he ever wants to do is sit in your lap hide his head in your underarm or neck. He “Whale eyes” all the time. his body is still and his head is still and he look at you then away than at you then away again. I speak softly to him and get on his level and then he releases himself. he goes right to snuggling me. he will push himself into me as if to want to be so close but can’t get any closer. Its strange he turns into a statue. he’ll do this multiple times a day, but i still can’t figure out his trigger…any thoughts?

    • Erica, without seeing what your dog is doing it’s difficult to give you advice. Have you consulted with a professional trainer? It sounds like he probably has quite a few triggers, which stack up to the point where he can no longer cope (causing the whale eyes and freezing). Check out “The Culture Clash” by Jean Donaldson for more information – it’s a great book!

  9. I just rescued my lab/retriever about 2 weeks ago. She is generally a good girl but when she gets tired, sleepy or relaxed (when I’m rubbing her belly) she gets that look in her eyes and the she bites.
    When she’s on her bed sleeping or ready to sleep, she will growl at whoever passes by.
    Is there a reason why she only gets that look when she’s tired, sleepy or relaxed?

    • Hi Cheryl,
      Thank you for rescuing a dog! It sounds like your girl is really uncomfortable with touch or other interactions when she’s sleeping. I would definitely recommend backing off if you see whale eyes, especially since you know she will bite if you don’t heed that warning. I would also recommend that you consult with a professional trainer in your area who can help you better understand what your new dog is saying and can help her to become more comfortable in these situations so that she no longer feels the need to whale eye or bite. Good luck!

      • Thank you! We are starting a training class with her in a couple of days! I hope this will help!

  10. Pingback: Canine Body Language: Some Dogs Don’t Want Belly Rubs! | Paws Abilities

  11. Pingback: Belly Rub Redux | Paws Abilities

  12. I don’t think whale eye can be a non stressful gesture. My dog does this all the time when she’s in her bed and just watching us. She does this when she’s tired or relaxing. If we’re walking around or make generic noise, she’ll keep her head where it is and look at us (whale eye). Her ears will perk up if it’s somewhat interesting to her (though not enough to get up). It’s almost like she’s feeling too lazy to lift up her head and look, but curious enough to give us the whale eye. I’ll add that she is extremely submissive to us and doesn’t display any form of “protectiveness” over anything from us.

  13. Pingback: Dominant Dogs | Paws Abilities

  14. I get a pillow and touch him with it and hold it high and also he puts white eyes when he eats something and I’m next to him he is feeling uncomfortable to eat
    Because he looks at me now with white eyes because I always used to annoy him before.
    My dog is a minie foxie cross

  15. Hi it’s simon again just to tell you when my fox terrier puts whale eyes I get angry and I get the pillow and scare him

  16. Pingback: “Needs Training” | Paws Abilities

  17. Pingback: Bernese Mountain Dog vs. Boston Terrier: Play or not? What do you see? | No Dog About It Blog

  18. Pingback: Petting Dogs: why consent is important | Paws Abilities

  19. Pingback: In Loving Memory: Falkor | Daily Dog Tag

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s