I recently found the video below of my dear, departed Misty, illustrating a classic canine expression of fear, the “whale eye”. In the video she is being circled by a huge Great Dane, both on leash, both set up for me to get a video of facial expressions in dogs. (I should note that both dogs were safe, the session lasted seconds, and Misty shook it off and behaved as if relaxed afterwards. Second note: I still apologized to her afterward. She listened, play bowed and looked for a treat.)
I show it here because it’s such a great example of what Sue Sternberg labeled years ago as “whale eye,” along with what I call “tongue flicks” or “lip licks”. (“Whale eye” after an observation made by a friend of an actual whale moving its eyes and not its head to follow the people on a boat.) This expression is a great indicator of distress or fear in a dog, and I’ve never had a better example of it than this video in which Misty communicates how uncomfortable she is about the presence of another dog. I bought Misty as a pup from sheep herding guru Jack Knox, and she grew up to be as sweet as a cinnamon bun to people, afraid of unfamiliar dogs, a bitch to my other female Lassie, and the worst sheep dog I’ve ever had. She panicked at the slightest sign of pressure from sheep, and would bust in and grab the ewe’s ear–always the left one–and hang on for dear life.
But boy was her face expressive, and this is as good an example of whale eye as I’ve ever seen. If you’re not familiar with the term, it signifies an expression in which the line of sight of the eye is different than the direction of the head. I call it the “horror movie” look, as when you’re watching a scary scene and turn your head away to the right because you just can’t look, but your eyes go back to the left because it feels too dangerous to not see what is about to happen. That results in a lot of white around the iris, usually on one side or the other of the colored part of the eye.
Watch for whale eye at seconds 8 and 17 and tongue flicks at seconds 4, 10 and 25 in the first half of the video. The entire sequence plays again in slow motion starting at second 31.
Did you also notice how dilated her pupils are, often another good indicator of fear? I’m especially interested in the “tooth display” she does at second 19, because it reminds me of the opposite of a Duchenne smile, in that rather than engaging the rest of the face, the expression is limited to the mouth. We all know not to believe a smile that doesn’t reach the eyes, and Misty’s tooth display feels a bit superficial, as if she doesn’t really mean it. I realize I’m on shaky ground here, imagining what’s going on in Misty’s mind from a simple expression, not to mention asking if she “means it” or not. But still. See what I mean? I’ve seen similar tooth displays in other dogs, whose lips rise up like the quick smile given as a pro forma acknowledgement of an unwanted compliment.
However, all whale eyes do not necessarily a fearful dog make. You see it often in play sequences too, as on the face of this poodle, whose accompanying tooth display is no more a sign of true aggression than a tackle from a professional football player. (Okay, maybe not the best example, given what actually goes on in a game.)
Sometimes it’s hard to use a whale eye as an indicator of a dog’s internal state. Is this pup playing with abandon, or playing with a certain amount of concern about the size of the adult dog’s maw, the better to eat you with Little Red Riding Puppy?
However, out of the context of play I’ve found the whale eye expression in a dog to be invaluable. It’s also ridiculously easy to spot. Once one has learned to look for it, it’s hard to miss. But, as we all know, most dog owners don’t know to look for it. How many people have been bitten by not noticing a dog turning away his head but moving the eyes back to not lose sight of “danger”?
If you’re interested in learning more, Barbara Handelman, in her book Canine Behavior, A Photo Illustrated Handbook, does a great job illustrating whale eye and tongue flicks in a variety of situations. I have a substantial section on it too in my day-long seminar, Lost in Translation. I’d love to hear your experience with it, in regard to your dog(s) or the dogs of others.
MEANWHILE, back on the farm: It may be grey and drizzly outside today, but we’ve had some lovely days of sun and warm weather (40’s!). Right now I’m all about light–taking a page from hygge and emphasizing coziness, light and warmth. From candles to Christmas trees, I’m working on enjoying the season rather than fighting it. Yesterday we went to our favorite place to cut our own tree, Summer’s Christmas Tree Farm and brought back a fraser fir.
There’s nothing light or cheerful about this next photo of saws that customers pick up to cut their own tree, but I still rather like it.
Jim got the lights on the tree when we brought it home (for which he gets lots of points, my least favorite part), and I got to add the ornaments. Every one is special, from the glass “candies” that my sister Wendy brought me from Italy, to a woolen angel from a friend, to a glass ornament from my mother years ago. Most of the ornaments are of birds, dogs or sheep.
Soon I’ll be ornamenting my friend’s stomachs with these lemon and blueberry scones. My holiday baking has started: Butternut Squash soup, scones, homemade rolls, Nanking cherry jam, and Jim’s famous Christmas cookies will be coming to our friends soon. I’m buying less, cooking more, feels wonderful.
I’d love to hear more about your experience with “whale eye,” not to mention what you’ll be cooking this holiday season. And eating . . . just saying.
The number and nuances of our dogs’ expressions never cease to amaze me. With five border collies and two Chihuahua-mixes in a small house I’m constantly monitoring facial expressions and body language. Even my husband has learn to read the various signs. I’m equally amazed at the number of people who are clueless as to what their dogs are signaling and then shocked when there is “trouble in paradise.” Thanks for reminding us about this important aspect of dog behavior especially at the holidays when our dogs are often stressed just like their human parents! BTW, I don’t suppose you would share that scone recipe?
Elizabeth Dougherty says
Good morning. Your timing on this piece was perfect! Our one year old Pyr mix has gotten two ear infections back to back. Did ok with treatment the first time around — he didn’t love the ear goop but got used to it. But after an kind of traumatic vet visit (add yearly shots and heartworm test to ear exam), when I tried to administer the ear meds the next day, he gave me the eye thing, along with flattening his ears. That was it, but after a year plus of dealing with and learning a lot about fear aggression (our prior dogs) and other difficult behaviors, I decided I wasn’t going to do the goop. I didn’t want him to develop a fear of anyone even touching his ears, and that seemed like where we might be heading. He was clearly telling me that he wasn’t up for it, and we’d have to find another way at least for now. But now I have a name for it! Thanks!
Margo Harris says
I’ll have to look back over the photos of my 4 to see if I can find any whale eyes!
I love your scone pan… very nice!
Happy decorating, and baking…I am just starting today.
Our nervous Samoyed mix is a walking encyclopedia of fear signals – whale eye, lip licks, panting, ears pulled back, weight shifted way back. She has grown to trust us, though, to the point where people who knew her before often say, “She looks so much happier!”
But since she has prick ears, I find that ear position is a quicker and more reliable indicator of her state of mind than whale eye.
Even though Sammy mix is nervous in certain situations – indoors, strangers (especially males), unexpected noises, scary paper bags, etc. – her response is to freeze or run away rather than to bite. Also she is easily won over by treats, as long as the person sits close to dog level rather than looming over her.
And outdoors, she is vastly more confident, strutting up to strangers with a big smile, “I’m pretty, you should pet me now!”
Do some dog breeds have a tendency to whale eye as part of their genetics? A friend of mine has a cavachon (Cavalier King Charles x Bichon Frise) and I find her really difficult to read. She seems to have a almost permanent whale eye expression. E.g. when she comes up to be petted, so I stop, thinking it’s too much to her, but no, as soon as I stop she paws me…
Whale eyes – you’re right, once you see them you can’t not!
And the photo of the saws…thought that was blood on the handle and was thinking, “didn’t she say trees?” Lol. And I just watched The Kitchen, so that’s the culprit.
Merry Christmas! And enjoy all the good eats.
Annie Callaway says
Thanks for the wall eyed article. We just adopted two rescue GSD both around a year No they are not litter mates just pals most of the time
Are we nuts. Of course !
Have had quite a few Rescue GSDs but never one with the whites of his eyes so pronounced as our Shep. He looked troubled but I didn’t quite know what I was seeing. This dog has had a rough past and doesn’t seem to have an off switch yet. In constant motion. And yes he will look at me at times with the whites and then soften.
Now he does have a very dark face but happily at other times I see only big dark dark eyes and his face is relaxed so am using the whites as part of his language to let me know what’s up
Scones look great
Is the tongue flick sometimes an attempt to calm oneself? My dog does it during belly rubs which I am sure he likes. In the video it accompanies arousal but could be Misty’s attempt to calm herself.
I love reading your articles. Now about that scone recipe…
Congratulations on all the great work you’ve done with your Sammy! My ears are up and pricked, happily, of course.
Great question. Yes, I think some do. Some of it is related to structure no doubt.
Scone recipe as easy as ordering it from King Arthur Flour! I love their mixes for Lemon-Blueberry Scones and Orange-Cranberry ones. (Berry Berry not so much.) I also love that although they provide the flour with dried fruit, you add fresh milk and an egg, then cut in butter. I always cut the butter in by hand, so they always feel “home made”. I should note that I also am a huge fan of their specialty flours, especially Artisan Blend (great for European style bread–ie, crunchy crust, chewy interior and Pastry Flour (best pie crust you’ll ever make). What are you baking this season?
Thanks for giving us the “super secret” scone recipe! Can’t wait to try it. I’m making plum pudding, which interestingly enough doesn’t contain plums as well as my grandfather’s egg nog recipe.
Robin M says
My oldest dog often uses the “tooth display” when the youngest invades his space. It is usually not accompanied with whale eye, hard eye or a growl, and if ignored, usually results in the older dog moving away. Often, it is accompanied by looking at me, which I interpret as “get him away from me, please!” I am certain that things could go sideways as well, as the two have had a history of kerfuffles, but I find this particular display fascinating. Thanks for sharing!
Happy Holidays to you!!
Kate-the-Keeshond has a behavior I’ve never seen in another dog. She licks air. It’s a full tongue extension, straight out, quick reps, and lots of them. She makes full eye contact, and her tail is quivering and rolled up tight. I interpret it as “asking permission” to come in for a snuggle/lick fest.
Anyone else seen this?
J. Christine says
My maltipom will give me the whale eye when it’s time for him to go into his crate at night.
He does not like the crate.
He usually gives a few growls too, sometime outright barks and snaps at the air once he goes inside. But then I cover him with the towl and he calms down. Like an angry parrot.
I think I screwed him up as a pup, as my newer dogs don’t do this. They just go in and get their treat. We made their crates safe spaces, and with him it was more of a “time out” place. So of course he doesn’t like it years later, and there’s not a lot I can do about it now. :/ I’ve tried making it a happy place since, but he is not a dog that forgives or forgets. So every night I’m trying to sound sweet and encouraging and then it’s time to go in and he starts cursing at the heavens and the earth and all who walk upon it and I’m like “that’s nice, go to sleep.”
Jennifer M. says
Like all other signals, when we see whale-eye, we have to look at the whole dog and the context. As a veterinary technician, I try to pay close attention to body language. I HATE it when my colleagues state that a dog “bit out of nowhere”. I guarantee the dog gave signals… tense, paw lift, lip lick, leaning away, looking away, et cetera, and the humans simply didn’t notice or appreciate what those signals mean. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been working with a dog who is nervous but cooperative, then I cross their threshold of tolerance and they freeze and give me that sideways whale-eye that says “You have 1/4 second to stop that!” Conversely, I’ve also worked in a doggie daycare with group playtime, and I have also seen whale-eye in that context. However, the dog is otherwise relaxed, signaling that everything is still okay.
So as a newish dog owner, I read the books and articles on this and saw the photos and at the time thought: yeah, right, how the hell am I supposed to see a whale eye? Seriously, we’re supposed to be looking for that?
Fast forward many months. A casual friend stops by at night to get some moving boxes (posted on FB sort of thing). We end up talking outside in my driveway for a while and of course the conversation turns to dogs. She and her young daughter (3 or 4) have volunteered at the shelter and fostered. “Oh, I’ll go get my dog and you can meet!” I go in the house and see a slice of bacon on the counter I’d been saving for our evening training session. I grab that and leash up my dog and head out. My friend gets her daughter out of the car and holds her. I’m still a new dog owner but I’ve read those great articles and been to training (me!) so I keep my dog at a short distance to make sure he feels comfortable before letting them meet. He’s always been very good with people, and I know he’ll be fine, but I’m practicing my new skills they taught me in dog training and feeling good about it. About the time I pull the bacon out of my pocket to tell him he’s a good boy, my friend starts putting her daughter down. THERE IT WAS! WHALE EYE! Completely and clearly unmistakable, even in the dim light from the open garage door. I grabbed Joey, pulled him back, quickly motioned to my friend I’d be back in a minute, and led him inside. I was both relieved that I saw it and knew what to do, and scared about what could have happened. I sat with him for a minute, asked for his paw, and gave him a bit of his bacon. (Not sure if that was the right thing, but it seemed to work.). Went back outside and chatted with the friend for a just a minute (who was fine with my choice but didn’t entirely understand because she didn’t see anything), and then came back inside. I will never know what made him feel uncomfortable, but one thought was that he had known for a while that he’d get that bacon that night before bed and maybe he thought the young girl was trying to get it. Grateful I had read the article and took action. Haven’t seen a whale eye since and have had my rescue pup for 5 more years since then.
Margaret, Phoebe does the air lick, too. She does this when she knows she shouldn’t lick me, and I just put hand cream on, and she wants to lick the cream, or she wants to interrupt something that’s happening but is not actively pushy in that way. I interpret her air licks as mildly anxious bordering on self appeasement. I’ve also seen her do it when she smells something she does not like; she curls her lips a bit and licks the air. It’s not a tongue flick but a lick. She’s a funny combination of super sensitive and super oblivious and very fussy with a dash of cravenness. She’s her own yin and yang. I have never seen Phoebe give the whale-eye in our fourteen years together. Olive on the other hand . . .
I used to have a black lab now sadly departed. We also had a cat (also sadly departed) who used psychological terror on her. Whenever Jess was relaxing on the sofa and the cat appeared so did Jess’ whale eye. The cat would saunter around the room often along the back of the sofa until poor Jess was so intimidated she would get up and leave the room.
I’ve seen a bit of it with my current dog, a 5 year old rescue whom I’ve had for only 4 months. She is an anxious girl and does lip licking mostly though.
In Therapy Dog work I don’t see whale eye very often but all sorts of lip licks, tongue flicks, yawns, shake offs, etc. It’s always interesting to me the number of handlers that recognize the behavior but don’t have any idea how to interpret it in context. Therapy work is stressful but in general Therapy Dogs love their job and are excited to go to work (if they aren’t I recommend finding a different activity to share). I’m constantly surprised at the number of handlers who believe all forms of stress are bad. I spend a fair amount of time trotting out my eustress vs distress speech. I usually end by asking them how their dog reacts to the prospect of going to work, are they excited to see their bandanna or do they run away from it. I think dogs are like people in that they enjoy challenging work even if it’s stressful but they’ll always choose to avoid something that’s distressing.
Thank you for another great post about reading dog expressions and listening to what our dogs are telling us. And thanks for the food porn and Christmas ornament pictures. I’ve been feeling the tug to get in the kitchen and bake but I need to actually be home to make it happen. Our tree this year will be a live one which will be planted on a nature preserve afterwards. I’m calling it an experiment this year. I’m hoping next year it can become an event where people can help reforest buffer parcels of Keta Legacy Foundation also known as Mountaineers Foundations Rhododendron Preserve. I think that would be a lovely tradition, live native species trees enjoyed indoors at the Holidays and then planted to protect habitat and restore nature for years to come.
My first dog was my best behaved dog. She was however not a dog dog. When at dog park, she ignored other dogs. One day a young dog worked hard to play with my dog. My dog gave the lip curl, then baring of the teeth then the snapping lunge after patiently waiting for the young dog to get the message. The young dog finally got the message. The owner of the young dog was not paying attention and accused my dog of being overly aggressive. I didn’t see the whale eye, but your blog is a great message for dog owners to pay more attention.
My dog often gives me a whale eye in play, especially when he’s rolling around on his back trying to get me to notice him and play with him. I’ve also observed him giving other dogs a whale eye when he’s playing – looking at them out of the corner of his eye as if hamming it up or daring them to come at him.
The difference between this and the fearful whale eye is like night and day. Your comparison of fake and real smiles is a good one; it seems there must be many muscles at work here to distinguish the two. Plus, there’s a general looseness in play, and a stiffness in fear.
Beverly Mae Nisbeth says
If you’ve seen the 1970s movie, Orca The Killer Whale, then you’ll know from where I believe the term whale eye originates: The scene where the momma whale and her baby are killed and papa whale gives the whalers his I’ve-got-you-marked whale eye.
Dan K says
Supposedly, a direct stare at a wolf is interpreted by the animal as a sign of aggression. I wonder if whale eye is a way for a dog to keep danger in sight but not to look directly at it, possibly a hold over from wolf ancestor behavior, not wanting to be seen as challenging a more dominant wolf.