Learn what your dog's sidelong glance means and how to respond.
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anxious dog laying on the floor with whale eye with a what the fluff logo on the image
Credit: Felipe Lima / EyeEm / Getty

You know that look your dog gives you when he's in trouble? Maybe he swiped food from the counter, dug a hole in the rug, or knocked over a plant, and you're ticked off. Even though your pup doesn't understand why you're mad, he can definitely tell you're upset. He looks at you from the corner of his big eyes, trying to judge just how bad things are. And that's dog whale eye. It's the canine equivalent of a side-eye glance—and it's packed with meaning.

What Is Whale Eye in Dogs?

A whale-eye look in dogs is when a pooch turns his head away from something but still keeps his eyes on it. For instance, say your dog sees a kid. Your pup may turn his face away from the child, but still keep his eyes fixed on the kid to see what will happen.

Whale eye causes more of the white part of your dog's eye (sclera) to show. Sometimes the eyes seem like they get bigger, too. Whale eye is also called half-moon eye because the exposed white part of the eye makes a crescent shape around the iris.

What Does Dog Whale Eye Mean?

Usually, you see whale eye in dogs that feel nervous. Dog whale eye is an appeasement gesture—canines turn their heads away to communicate that they're not a threat, explains Heather Gillihan, a certified dog trainer with Zoom Room.

"It's a signal you should definitely pay attention to," she says. "When dogs feel stressed or scared, it produces more instability in a dog. And a fearful dog is more likely to bite, especially if they don't know what's happening or it's a circumstance that they're not used to."

Other signs of fear in dogs include:

Is Whale Eye in Dogs Always Bad?

Whale eye isn't always a sign of negative emotion in dogs. Sometimes it can show playfulness or excitement. For instance, when your dog has a toy and looks up at you without moving his head, that'll expose a lot of white around his eye. That can be a sign that he wants you to play with him.

It really just depends on the scenario and what else your dog is saying with his body language, which is the primary way dogs communicate. So if you want to know what your dog is feeling or thinking, learning how to interpret dog cues is essential.

Another example of how one sign can be interpreted multiple ways: A dog that rolls over and exposes his belly whenever someone comes up to him could be very anxious. Like whale eye, going belly up is another appeasement gesture that a dog does to show he isn't a threat. Or it just may be that the dog wants belly rubs from anyone who will give them. Sometimes it's hard to tell unless you pick up on subtle signs like whether your dog's body is relaxed or tense and if there's whale eye.

What To Do When Your Dog Exhibits Whale Eye

If you see that your dog has whale eye, the first thing to do is determine what the trigger is. Did your pup see another dog that's scaring him? Is someone yelling? Once you figure it out, remove the trigger and help redirect your dog's attention to something that he likes.

"You're hoping that your dog forgets about the trigger. And at the very least, you're keeping your dog from progressing to a next-level reaction," Gillihan says.

Dog whale eye is more than a meme, it's a way for your dog to communicate with you. Knowing what it means and taking the steps to help your pup are great ways to strengthen your bond. Because reading each other's subtle cues is what best friends do.