From the largest mastiff to the smallest chihuahua, dogs are an integral part of our lives and make us happier and more fulfilled. As we get to know our dogs better and better, quirks in communication arise. These range from knowing that a particular “bark” at 5 p.m. means dinner to the occasional cheeky wink. Wait—can dogs wink? Yes, they can! In fact, dog winking is a common phenomenon.
Interpreting puppy gestures is a skill of any dog owner, but why do dogs wink, and how does it happen? Below, we will dive into this behavior and better understand why our dogs communicate with us in this particular way.
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Historical Context for Winking Dogs
Through the domestication process, dog behavior has shifted to more closely emulate humans and accomplish what humans ask of their dogs. Initially, wild wolves began to notice that humans left food, and in return, the wolves became dependant on humans and started to protect communities of people.
The food-for-safety symbiotic relationship progressed over the years via specific training and breeding. Farmers began training dogs to herd; soldiers trained dogs for war, and now scientists and doctors are training dogs to detect cancer!
As the human and dog relationship grew stronger, dogs began to emulate human behavior and not just enact the behavior they were trained to accomplish, which leads us to dogs winking.
When a Dog Wink Is Fun
Dogs can wink to mimic their owners, on accident, or owners can train dogs to wink! First, as dogs domesticated, they learned that manipulating their owners would lead to treats, pets, and perhaps toys, so dogs adopted facial expressions to elicit joy in their humans. Additionally, happy and more submissive dogs will wink at their owners to indicate excitement and contentment or notify you that they require attention.
Non-verbal communication in dogs is astounding. A study from the University of Copenhagen reviewed the importance of nonverbal cues between humans and dogs and studied how our experiences with dogs affect the human-dog relationship. Findings revealed that when a human has a lower awareness of nonverbal cues, like winking, it negatively impacts the relationship. So, noticing that your dog is winking is a sign of a healthy human-dog relationship, and science shows that it might be a good idea to wink back!
Second, dogs can wink on accident. It could be an itch or a piece of fur that entered their eye or a strong gust of wind. An accidental wink is nothing to be concerned about and is adorable to catch in action.
Dogs also send subliminal messages by winking. A key difference in behavior between humans and dogs is what eye contact signifies. When two people engage in conversation, eye contact is respectful and engaging. However, with dogs, prolonged eye contact is a sign of aggression. When your dog breaks eye contact, it demonstrates its unwillingness to engage in a fight by submitting, and often this is expressed as a wink.
Finally, owners can train dogs to wink! One of the first skills working dogs learned was making eye contact with their owners and following hand signals for herding. It should come as little surprise that most dogs are predisposed to learn skills that relate to intently watching a human’s every movement following given instructions.
Teaching your dog to wink is most effective when using a technique called classical conditioning, which connects one stimulus with another result. (Think of the famous Pavlov experiment where the ring of a bell would cause dogs to salivate because they associated the sound with dinner!) Begin by selecting a specific word or short phrase like “are you sure?” Then touch the side of your dog’s face, close to their whisker, which will cause the dog to blink or wink its eye. Continuing this method and reinforcing winks with treats will lead to a new and clever trick!
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When a Wink Requires a Visit to the Vet
Constant winking could be a problematic medical condition involving the state of your dog’s eye. Irritation can lead to squinting, which might be mistaken for winking. An inflamed eye due to irritation could come from a chemical, a scratch, or various other causes.
If you notice continuous winking, you might also see your dog rub its eye with its paw or use the floor to rub its face. Many pet stores have various eye drops that are safe for use on dogs which might alleviate the problem. However, if the symptoms continue, visiting a vet could become essential to preserve the health of your dog’s eye.
In some breeds, excessive winking could be a symptom of a disease called entropion. In this eyelid abnormality, the eyelid rolls inward, which results in exterior hair rubbing against the cornea. The condition can be painful and ultimately interfere with a dog’s vision. Entropion is genetic, so it is essential to know if your dog might be at risk. These are some of the most common breeds this vision problem effects:
- Basset Hound
- Bernese Mountain Dog
- English and American Cocker Spaniel
- Golden Retriever
- Great Dane
- Old English Sheepdog
Understanding Your Dog’s Wink
Winking is a natural occurrence in dogs. It can mean that the dog is happy, submissive, or even cunning. Teaching your dog to wink is a cute and clever skill that will easily impress all of your friends and family. The more time you spend with your dog, the more non-verbal clues you will learn about how they communicate. Remember, science tells us that we should wink back to let the dog know that we understand their communication!
On the other hand, if winking is accompanied by irritation and rubbing, then your dog could be experiencing a problematic medical condition that might affect its vision. Using dog-safe eye drops or scheduling an appointment to discuss your dog’s situation is an important step.
Every pet owner wants a happy and healthy dog, and keeping an eye on “the wink” is a fun way to ensure that your dog is calm, energetic, and engaged.
Conclusion for Why Do Dogs Wink?
Most of the time, dog winking is playful and a phenomenon that dogs have adapted to mimic human behavior. It’s likely that you’ve seen several dogs wink at you from social media which is just a funny facial expression or accident. However, if you notice that your dog is squinting a lot in one particular eye, it may cause concern for a medical issue. If you think your dog may be sick or have entropion, we highly encourage you to see your veterinarian.
Still not convinced that dogs can wink? Check out this video:
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