Why Do Dogs Wink?
By Dr. Kaitlin Wurtz December 17, 2020
We rely on reading our dog’s facial expressions to figure out what they’re trying to say to us and to judge how they’re feeling. Underlying muscle structures responsible for facial expressions are highly conserved among mammals (Diogo et al., 2009). It’s reasonable then to question whether the same cognitive processes underlie facial expressions as well. We know some facial expressions have the same meaning between dogs and humans, for instance, in both species a “grimace” can indicate feeling pain, whereas soft eyes and a gentle smile can indicate contentment. Interpreting what a “wink” means in dog facial language is a bit more difficult. Even among human societies, the meaning of a wink can vary widely. In some cultures, a wink may suggest sexual intent. While in others, it may be used to share an inside secret or joke, and in some, it may be perceived as incredibly offensive or rude.
Why Do Dogs Wink?
Researchers studying facial expressions in dogs have come to a few conclusions as to what winking likely means. The following are possible explanations for why a dog is winking:
- Expression of their mood: Winks can indicate that a dog is feeling happy, upbeat, or at peace.
- Indicate submission: Dogs use a wink as a way to avoid aggression by suggesting that they are not a threat.
- Attention-seeking: If a dog’s owner often gets excited when their dog winks, the dog may pick up on this and use winking as a way to gain attention and affection from their owner.
- Mimicry: Many behaviors that dogs perform are done so as a community. For instance, dogs are likely to eat or nap at the same time as others around them. They may also mimic body language and facial expressions such as winking to fit in with their group.
- Startle response: Dogs may blink or wink their eyes as part of the startle reflex. Blinking is also linked to general feelings of fear or frustration (Gähwiler et al., 2020).
- Medical condition: Winking could also be a sign of irritation or discomfort of the eye which could be the result of a condition requiring medical treatment.
Is Winking A Form Of Communication?
Yes, winking can absolutely be used as a form of communication. Dogs will use winking with other dogs to negotiate potentially aggressive interactions. In dogs, direct eye contact is used to signal dominance or aggression. Dogs will therefore blink or wink an eye to break eye contact to indicate that they are friendly and do not wish to harm the other dog. This blink or wink may also be followed by the dog turning their head away (Aloff, 2018). Direct eye contact or staring from a human may also cause a dog to look away or to quickly wink/blink. In this case, the dog is signaling submission and that they are not a threat to us. Other signs to look for that a dog is non-threatening include a lack of body tension, relaxed ears, a slightly open mouth, and loose lips (Aloff, 2018).
How Do I Know If My Dog Is Winking On Purpose Or Involuntarily?
Historically, facial expressions of animals have been thought to be involuntary and inflexible displays of their emotional states. However, as research and scientific knowledge has advanced, there has been evidence suggesting that dogs can change their facial expressions on purpose as a way to communicate with other dogs and humans (Kaminski et al., 2017). In addition to being a communication tool, winking may be used to build social bonds through mimicry. Dogs will naturally adapt their behaviors to match those around them, such as eating, sleeping, or playing at the same time as their packmates. Mimicry of body language, including facial expressions is common in friendly interactions and is used in building and maintaining healthy relationships. One way to detect whether a wink is intentional or not is to read the context and watch for the dog to “hold the blink”. Intentional blinking used for communication is often performed in an exaggerated fashion.
Can I Train My Dog To Wink?
Dogs are incredibly smart creatures – they are experts at connecting behaviors that get them a reward. Your dog may pick up on your excitement when they wink at you, and they may repeat this behavior in the future to get your attention and possibly a treat reward. You can also train your dog to wink on command. Start by rewarding your dog for winking behavior. You may need to trigger your dog to wink in order to give a reward. Do so by gently touching their whiskers on the side of their muzzle (the same side that you want them to wink with). As soon as your dog winks, praise them and give them a treat, pets, or some play time with their favorite toy. Use whatever reward your dog responds best to. A clicker can come in handy for capturing the exact moment that your dog blinks, so they know exactly what they are getting rewarded for. Repeat this process until your dog has created a strong link between winking and getting a reward. Then add a verbal cue (such as “wink” or “flirt”) each time you ask for a wink. Over time, your dog will associate the cue with winking and getting a reward.
Is Excessive Winking Ever A Sign Of A Health Problem?
Winking can be an incredibly cute behavior that our dogs perform. It’s often a positive sign that our dogs want to be our friend, and that they are relaxed around us. However, excessive winking behavior could be a sign that our dog is suffering from a health condition that requires veterinary treatment. Blepharospasm, the spasm, twitch, or quick blinking or winking of the eyelid may be caused by the following conditions:
- Infection: Bacterial or fungal infections of the eye can cause pain and irritation.
- Inflammation: The eye could become inflamed and irritated due to debris such as dust, dirt, hair, or chemical products. Scratches from brancher or brush can also cause injury.
- Allergies: Allergies can cause dry and scratchy eyes.
- Ectopic cilia: Abnormal hair growth that comes in contact with the eye can cause pain and could lead to ulcers (Helper and Magrane 1970).
- Tear duct issue: A blocked tear duct could cause dry eyes and irritation.
- Corneal ulcer: Erosion of the surface of the cornea, usually due to something rubbing on the eye.
Entropion: A condition in which one of the eyelids flips inward, causing the tiny hairs of the eyelid to rub on the surface of the eye. There is a strong genetic component to this condition and examples of breeds at an increased risk include (Stades and Gelatt, 2008):
- Shar Pei and Chow Chow – Lower lid (often shorter than normal)
- Hunting breeds – Lateral lower lid
- Great Dane and St. Bernard – Lateral lower lid and lateral canthus (lid may be too long)
- Bloodhound, Chow Chow, and Shar Pei – Upper lid
- Poodles, Shih Tzu, Pug, and English Bulldog – Medial lower lid
If you notice your dog blinking or winking a lot, especially accompanied with scratching at the eye area or rubbing their face on furniture or the ground, please seek veterinary treatment immediately. Look for any eye discharge or redness of the eye. Most ailments can be corrected with use of eye drops or ointments, however some may require surgery such as entropion (Read and Broun, 2007).
What Is The Best Way to Respond Back To A Dog’s Wink?
Possibly the best way to respond to a dog’s wink is to wink back! This signals to the dog that you similarly are non-threatening and wish to maintain a peaceful relationship. You can also praise your dog or reward them for the friendly communication. Try to avoid staring back at your dog with direct eye contact as they may be perceiving you as a threat (even if that was not your intention).
In summary, winking behavior in dogs is most likely just another way in which our furry friends can communicate with us. It likely means that our dogs are friendly and feeling happy or content. Winking may also be used to strengthen social bonds or as a way to gain attention from humans. In some cases, winking may also be a sign of eye irritation or discomfort and veterinary treatment should be sought to prevent any long-term ill effects. Thankfully, most eye issues can be treated easily if caught early.
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Aloff, B. (2018). Canine body language: a photographic guide. Dogwise Publishing.
Diogo, R., Wood, B. A., Aziz, M. A., & Burrows, A. (2009). On the origin, homologies and evolution of primate facial muscles, with a particular focus on hominoids and a suggested unifying nomenclature for the facial muscles of the Mammalia. Journal of Anatomy, 215(3), 300-319.
Gähwiler, S., Bremhorst, A., Tóth, K., & Riemer, S. (2020). Fear expressions of dogs during New Year fireworks: a video analysis. Scientific Reports, 10(1), 1-10.
Helper, L. C., & Magrane, W. G. (1970). Ectopic cilia of the canine eyelid. Journal of Small Animal Practice, 11(3), 185-189.
Kaminski, J., Hynds, J., Morris, P., & Waller, B. M. (2017). Human attention affects facial expressions in domestic dogs. Scientific Reports, 7(1), 1-7.
Read, R. A., & Broun, H. C. (2007). Entropion correction in dogs and cats using a combination Hotz–Celsus and lateral eyelid wedge resection: results in 311 eyes. Veterinary ophthalmology, 10(1), 6-11.