Whale Eyes (Half Moon Eyes)

The tern Whale eyes” was labeled by author, dog trainer and expert on dog aggression Sue Stemberg. It’s used to refer to when the white portion of the dog’s eye shows (not to be confused with a dog’s third eyelid). Also known as “half moon eye” whale eye in dogs is mostly seen when the dog turns his head slightly, but his eyeball remains turned to the side, fixed on something. When this happens, the white part of the eye, the sctera, appears as a white crescent-like shape in the comer of one eye. You don‘t normally see much of the white of a dog’s eyes other than in certain particular circumstances.

An example of whale eyes in a dog.  

Ar’iatomy of Eye

Interestingly, when it comes to the white portion of the eyes, humans come well equipped compared to dogs and other animals. In humans, the sclera of the eye is very visible, not only because of its contrasting white color, but also because the iris is relatively small compared to other animals.

Ever wondered why our entire eye isn’t all the same color? One theory is that our sclera is so visible for communicative purposes, so others can see where we are looking and we can use our eyes as a form of non-verbal communication.

Interestingly, research on dogs has revealed that during the process of domestication, dogs have relied on picking up visual cues from our eyes too! Indeed, when it comes to picking up visual information, dogs seem to rely more on human eyes than the eyes of each other. After all, dogs don’t rely much on eye contact amongst each other (steady, direct eye contact may mean trouble in the dog world), therefore that may explain why a dog’s sclera is just a narrow rim of white connective tissue that’s much less noticeable than in humans.

A Look a Context

Paying attention to what is occurring when the dog shows whale eyes is important to help you prevent putting the dog in a similar situation in the future. What is happening when the dog shows whale eyes? Is the doe   ‘ng hugged? Photographed? Is a person or dog getting too close to his toy or bone? Is another dog invading his personal space?

Whale eyes are most often seen when the dog is in a situation that makes him feel uncomfortable. The dog doesn’t want to stare directly, so he’ll avert his head the other way, but at the same time he doesn’t want to take his eyes off of what is concerning him. You may see it when a dog is cornered, guarding a possession or in an uncomfortable situation, such as when he*s being photographed or hugged. The dog may feel stressed, anxious, fearful or defensive.

just A Puzzle Piece

As with other doggy body language, it’s a good idea to look at the context, but it’s also worth paying attention to the overall body language versus singling out only one signal.

Whale eyes are often accompanied by tense facial muscles, a tightly closed mouth, dilated pupils, a stiff body, and sometimes more evident signs such as some growling and a cuJed lip. For more body language signals of fear and stress see this article.

Whale eye may be seen just a split second before a dog is about to snap (or in a dog who‘s considering snapping should things escalate). The dog may turn the head away, while showing whale eyes and then may decide to snap.

If you notice whale eyes in your dog, it’s time to give the dog space and plan how to avoid putting the dog in a similar situation in the future. Consult with a behavior professional for guidance on how to reduce stress in the dog and prevent situations from escalating.

No Rule of Thumb

Paying attention to context and other accompanying body language can tell us a whole lot of what may be going on. Just because we notice the white of our dog’s eyes, doesn’t necessarily mean that our dogs are stressed, fearful or uncomfortable.

Dogs may show whale eyes for several other reasons. Whale eyes may appear just because dogs are moving their eyes to took at something, but they don’t feel like moving their head. For instance, a dog may be lying down with his head resting on the floor and he may not feel like moving his head, but may still want to keep an eye on what his owners or other dogs are doing around him.

A dog may show whale eyes as a sign of a pinched nerve in the neck, as dogs with this painful condition are reluctant to turn their head. Some dogs are also anatomically built in such a way that their eyes have the sclera that shows more without anything stressful happening. For example, dogs with short snouts and shallow sockets may have a more visible sdera compared to other dogs.

Einstein Says: Did you Mow? Patricia McConnell, in the book “For the Love of a Dog: Understanding Emotion in You and Your Best Friend” mentions that the tern “whale eye” first came from a dient of dog trainer Susan Stemberg, who noticed how the eyes of whales she had been observing showed their whites no matter which direction their head was pointing.

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