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Whale eyes in dogs: Vet's guide to signs and causes

Sad dog showing whites of eyes
(Image credit: Getty Images)

You may have heard the term “whale eyes in dogs” and wondered what this means.  Whale eye is a specific dog behavior that occurs when a dog is anxious, frightened, or feels threatened. 

Being able to identify a whale eye is an essential skill for dog owners, because this behavior is a signal that your dog is feeling extremely uncomfortable with the current situation. 

When a dog shows whale eye, it is important to intervene and take steps to remove or manage the source of the dog's distress. Read on to learn more about whale eye in dogs and what to do if you catch your dog showing this sign of anxiety. 

What is whale eye in dogs?

Whale eye in dogs has nothing to do with whales. Whale eye is when a dog shows the white part of his eyes, also known as the sclera. This occurs because the dog has turned his head away but has continued looking at the person or object in his path, showing the whites of his eyes. The eyes may also appear more round than usual and the pupils may be dilated. 

Dogs display whale eye when they are tense, stressed, anxious, or frightened. The dog may also show other symptoms of anxiety or distress such as a stiff body posture, lip licking, yawning, low tail carriage, or a tense jaw.

Are whale eyes always a bad sign?

Whale eye is a sign that your dog is feeling anxious, stressed, or frightened. However, it's important to distinguish true whale eye from other reasons why you may see the whites of your dog's eyes. 

To do this, you'll need to consider your dog's behavior in the context of his environment. If your dog simply looks at something without turning his head, but otherwise has relaxed body posture, this is not a whale eye even though you may see the whites of his eyes. 

On the other hand, if your dog sees something threatening and turns his head away but keeps his eyes focused on the perceived threat, you will see the whites of his eyes as well as other anxiety-related behavior such as a stiff body posture. This is a true whale eye and is a sign that your dog is feeling threatened and uncomfortable.  

What to do when dogs show whale eye

Dogs show whale eye in response to a perceived threat. This could be anything from an unfamiliar dog to a new object in their path or a person doing something scary that they don’t like. 

If your dog is showing a whale eye, the first step is to identify the trigger – that is, the cause of your dog's distress. If you can identify the trigger, you can avoid or manage it to help your dog feel more comfortable in the situation. 

Often the best way to do this is to remove your dog from the threatening situation entirely. For example, a dog that is anxious around other dogs may show whale eye in response to an unfamiliar dog approaching while on a walk. 

The trigger in this case is the unfamiliar dog. You can help your dog feel more comfortable by giving your dog extra space away from this unfamiliar dog. Consider crossing the street or turning and walking in the opposite direction to avoid the trigger and reduce your dog's distress.  

Dog eating treat

(Image credit: James Lacy/Unsplash)

How to reduce anxiety in dogs

Anxious dogs, like anxious people, can find unfamiliar and unpredictable situations scary and threatening. 

To help your anxious dog feel more confident and comfortable, keep his environment as predictable as possible: 

1. Stick to a routine

Sticking to a routine can help an anxious dog learn what to expect from his environment and eliminates unpredictability. 

Identifying and avoiding or managing anything that triggers your dog's anxiety is also essential to help your dog feel secure in his environment.  

2. Never use punishment

Never use punishment to train or correct your dog, as this can worsen fear and anxiety. Punishment in this case includes any method intended to hurt, startle, frighten, intimidate, or force your dog into submission. 

This includes yelling, scolding, hitting, shock or stim collars, prong collars, alpha rolls, and the like. These methods rely on causing your dog pain or fear to work, which will only worsen anxiety and may cause additional behavior problems.

3. Focus on reward

Instead, focus on rewarding desirable behaviors by giving your dog something positive, like a treat, petting, praise, or a favorite toy.  

The reward increases the likelihood that your pup will continue to repeat the behavior in order to receive the reward again. Not only is this a more effective training method because it shows your dog exactly what to do to receive the reward, but it also helps improve your dog's confidence.  

4. Consult with your veterinarian

Most importantly, be sure to discuss your dog’s anxiety with your veterinarian. Your veterinarian can help you establish a behavior modification training plan and may recommend medication for your dog if necessary. 

Your veterinarian may also refer you to a board certified veterinary behaviorist. A board certified veterinary behaviorist is a veterinarian who has completed years of additional training in animal behavior and who specializes in treating problem behaviors. He or she can help you determine the underlying causes of your dog's anxiety, identify and manage triggers, and develop an individualized treatment plan for your dog.  

Summary

If your dog is showing a whale eye, this is a sign to take notice of your dog and his environment. Your dog is signaling that he feels threatened by something, so you’ll need to identify the trigger quickly and remove your dog from the situation to alleviate his distress. 

Whale eye is an important sign of fear and anxiety in dogs, especially when accompanied by other signals such as a stiff body posture, lip licking, yawning, raising a paw, tense jaw, or other signs of discomfort. Knowing how to read these canine body language signs is essential to maintain good communication with your dog. 

Dr. Elizabeth Racine is a small animal general practice veterinarian covering all things pet health and wellness.  Her special interests include veterinary behavior, nutrition, and internal medicine.  As a freelance writer, Dr. Racine has written content for major companies in the industry such as the American Kennel Club, Merck Animal Health, Bayer PetBasics, Elanco, and CareCredit.  In her free time, Dr. Racine enjoys playing trampoline dodgeball, hiking with her beagle Dasher, and spending time with her three mischievous cats.  Dr. Racine can be found at www.theveterinarywriter.com (opens in new tab) and at https://www.linkedin.com/in/eracinedvm/ (opens in new tab)