Decoding Your Dog: The Eyes

A dog with expressive eyes

A dog’s eyes are naturally expressive. Small changes in the shape and size of his eyes or the direction and intensity of his gaze can tell you if your dog is feeling happy, excited, nervous, or scared. Knowing how to interpret the changes in eye shape and size can give you a lot of information about how your dog is feeling about a particular person, place, or thing and can help you predict what he will do next. This article will focus on the different ways that dogs can communicate with their eyes, but it’s important to remember that eye expression is just one piece of the puzzle. In order to get the best estimation of what your dog is trying to say, it’s essential to look at all aspects of body language that your dog is expressing at the same time.

Dog Luke with a happy smile
Photo: mo01229 via Flickr

When your dog is happy and relaxed, his eyes will be his normal shape and size. It’s important to observe your dog closely so that you have a good idea of what “normal” looks like for him. Some dogs have round eyes, while others are more almond-shaped. If your dog is looking at you with a relaxed expression, he is most likely trying to be friendly. He is probably hoping that you’ll notice and interact with him.

A Dachshund smile
Photo: Andrew Smith via Flickr

A dog that squints his eyes is usually letting you know that he means no harm. A direct, head on approach can be threatening for a lot of dogs. Squinting his eyes is one way that a dog can approach something directly while also letting the person or other dog know that he doesn’t want any trouble. Additionally, some dogs will squint their eyes when they are not feeling well or are in pain.

A tense Dog stare
Photo: Can Mustafa Ozdemir via Flickr

A dog that is staring directly at something with a tense facial expression is either feeling threatened by something or is trying to threaten something himself. If your dog is staring intensely at something, do your best to redirect his attention by calling his name and walking him farther away from the person, dog, or thing that he is staring at. Do not let him approach any closer if possible. If there is a dog that is staring at you, the best thing that you can do is slowly turn your head away to let him know that you mean no harm.

A dog looking away
Photo: Jeff Ro via Flickr

Turning his gaze away is another way that a dog can let a person or another dog know that he means no harm and doesn’t wish to interact any further. Sometimes dogs will avert their gaze as a means of calming another dog that is nervous or overly excited. Sometimes dogs will avert their gaze when they are worried about something themselves. Looking away from something scary helps to lessen the dog’s anxiety, and it also lets that scary person, dog, or object know that the dog doesn’t want to interact any further.

A dog with a nervous expression
Photo: Joe Calhoun via Flickr

Most of the time, the whites’ of a dog’s eyes are not visible. However, when you can see the ‘whites’ of a dog’s eye, it’s a pretty big indicator that he’s feeling stressed, anxious, or afraid of whatever he’s looking at. Trainers and behaviourists call this expression the “whale eye” or the “half moon eye.” This is a dog that is asking you to leave him alone. If you continue to approach a dog that is giving this expression, he may feel threatened enough to growl, snap, or bite. It’s best to give him space until he calms down and relaxes his expression.

Sage with big dog eyes
philhearing via Flickr

Eyes that appear larger than normal and/or have largely dilated pupils (when it’s not dark outside) can indicate that a dog is feeling threatened in some way. He may be stressed by something or he may be frightened. Again, this is a warning sign – it’s best to give this dog more space to diffuse his anxiety and so that he doesn’t feel threatened enough to escalate his warning to a growl, air snap, or bite.

The expression in a dog’s eyes can give you a lot of information about what he’s thinking or feeling about a person, place, dog, or object. Remember, the eyes don’t paint the whole picture and it’s necessary to look at other aspects of your dog’s body language (e.g. tail and mouth) to get the best idea of what he’s actually feeling.

You might also enjoy