I know, I know, us dogs have some pretty cute antics. We can vocalize, do tricks, and be your best friend for life. Plus, we can sometimes behave like humans and recreate some common human gestures, making our pet parents laugh even more. Just like our humans, sometimes we wink like our owners. But, what does a dog wink really mean? Truth be told, a wink from a canine can mean many things, and experts are still debating the real reason behind a dog wink. I know why I wink, but that is a secret I will keep with me forever. Below, I’ll outline some commonly believed reasons behind a wink and address the circumstance when a wink may not be playful, but something medically significant which a veterinarian should examine.
What is a Wink?
Humans and dogs are both capable of winking because of their eye structure. In both dogs and humans, the eye consists of the eyeball and a lid, which makes the wink motion possible. A wink is a typical motion of the eyelid, whether spontaneous or intentional. A wink consists of closing one eyelid for a split second and reopening the lid, while the other eye remains open and transfixed. Winks can be prolonged, lasting for a second or more, or a quick and sudden motion. Dogs, just like people, occasionally will close just one eyelid to give a little wink in our human’s direction. We understand why we wink, but to humans, the cause of our wink is unknown. Very smart scientists and canine behaviorists have many theories related to winking in dogs.
What Winking Means for Humans
A behavior that may set humans apart from us dogs is the ability to wink on command. The jury is still out whether dogs have that capability. In most cases, winking in humans conveys a playful attitude, a way to flirt, or a fun way to communicate. Winking is a subtle movement that can have different meanings based on the circumstance and context. Winking can let a friend know about an inside secret or can indicate laughter. In today’s tech-savvy world, winking has even emerged into emojis and symbols, with the wink symbol now commonplace in texts and emails. My human likes to wink at me when she sneaks me treats under the dinner table, but that’s a secret, and I’ll never tell the cat!
Why Do Dogs Wink?
As much as humans would like to believe that dogs think and behave exactly as people do, the truth is that us dogs have our own body language and communication methods. This body language is how we talk with our canine friends! But, from time to time, observant our pet owners will witness their furry friends winking at them. Is this a coincidence? Is it a fluke? Are we trying to fill you in on a secret or a dirty joke? Maybe it is a little bit of all these reasons. Scientists and animal behaviorists aren’t quite sure why we wink, but they have several theories on the dog wink, making plenty of sense.
One idea gaining traction with the scientific community is that dogs wink because they are trying to mirror their human’s behavior. We can be pretty funny, and us dogs have been known to play the role of a copy cat, often performing behaviors and actions similar to human actions. This copy cat behavior is why we will sometimes stretch when you stretch or yawn when you yawn. We try to pattern our own days after our human’s day, eating dinner when you eat dinner or sleeping when you sleep. A recent study conducted in 2017 alludes to the fact that human attention can impact our facial expressions and behavior, creating a link between dog reactions and human interaction. This link is why we get excited when we see you laugh! We have possibly seen you wink on occasion, and we are simply mirroring the behavior back to you.
While dogs communicate with one another, just like humans do, our signals often convey a very different message compared to similar human behaviors. In humans, direct eye contact shows that you are engaged and interested in the conversation, giving your counterpart your full attention. However, in dogs, staring and direct eye contact with another dog can be a sign of anger or aggression. That is what we do when we are trying to prove we are top dog. Sometimes, these instinctual behaviors in dogs translate to our relationship with humans too. If you stare at us and make direct eye contact, we will usually break away from our stare or look down at the ground, interrupting the constant stare. This action is just us showing you a sign of submission. We are trying to tell you that we are submissive and don’t have any aggression or anger toward you. If we happen to wink at you following direct eye contact, this could be our way of showing that we are submissive and loyal to our favorite human.
Us dogs are pretty clever, and we understand exactly what to do to get attention. Have you ever had us nudge you when it is close to dinner time? Or give you plenty of kisses in the morning when it is time for a walk? Dogs understand the best ways to get emotion or a reaction from their humans, and winking may be no different. If a dog has winked at you in the past, chances are you had a good reaction. You may have even given your pet some extra attention by laughing or giving your dog a scratch. Dogs learn this type of behavior and can then remember to wink if they want to get a rise out of their human. A wink may simply be a way of us asking for attention and then justifiably receiving a good scratch behind the ears.
Unfortunately, winking can also sometimes be connected to a medical problem. In these cases, winking may not be voluntary but instead may be a reaction due to a more significant complication or condition with the eyes. If you notice that we are winking excessively or that our winking is causing other trauma to our eyes or face, it may be time to visit a veterinarian. As much as I hate to admit it, sometimes a trip to the vet’s is quite necessary to help me feel better.
When Winking Can Be Problematic
Winking in dogs can be connected to some serious medical diseases and conditions. While it is always fun to see us wink at you when we are playful and craving your attention, it is essential to remain mindful and observant of our actions. Understand that sometimes winking can indicate a larger problem that may require medical attention. Winking can be the first symptom of some pretty serious diseases and conditions that can be damaging and dangerous, compromising our overall health.
Like human eyelids, a dog’s eyelid consists of a flap of skin covering the eyeball. The skin has some hairs and lashes attached, which help filter dirt, dust, and debris from entering the eye. In a healthy dog eye, the eyelid sits flush to the eyeball and moves smoothly outside the eye when the eye rotates or moves within the socket. Entropian is a condition that impacts thousands of dogs around the world. In this condition, the skin of the eyelid rolls inward. The inverted eyelid then puts the tiny hairs on the eyelid’s surface in contact with the eyeball itself. When the eye moves from side to side, the small hairs can scratch the surface of the eye, causing pain, discomfort, ulceration, or possible infection.
While this condition can happen in any dog, it is mostly considered a hereditary disease commonly found in certain breeds of dogs, including Dalmatians, English Setters, Golden Retrievers, and Akitas. One of the first and most common symptoms of entropion is a dog repeatedly blinking or winking. The dog may also appear to paw at his or her face, as the entropion can cause discomfort. Luckily, entropion is a relatively easy condition to fix with just a simple, corrective surgery.
Another possible reason why we could be winking at you could be due to allergies. Just like humans can have allergies, pets can get allergies too. I sometimes have allergies from the house or the outdoors. Things like dust or smoke in the home can cause my eyes to become sore. Or, different seasons create different pollens and dander in the environment. Usually, my allergies get bad between the spring and the fall. When my allergies act up, my eyes can become itchy, irritated, and red. They can start to water and sometimes even stain my light-colored fur around my eyes. To help fight off the itchiness, sometimes I will give you a little wink. Although this is cute and adorable, I’m really just trying to tell you that allergies make my eyes uncomfortable. Luckily, a veterinarian should be able to help with pet allergies.
It is always important to know when you should set up an appointment with the veterinarian. As much as I would like to, I can’t talk to you and communicate with you how you understand. That is why you sometimes have to look to other signs and signals, like winking, to know what is wrong. If you notice that I am winking at you pretty often, understand that I’m not just trying to let you in on a secret joke and that my eyes are bothering me. If my eyes also appear red, swollen, or watery, it may be time to schedule an appointment with my veterinarian so that I can get my eyes fixed and healthy. That way, I’ll only wink at you when I have a dirty joke to share!