Happy Dog Looks: Do Dogs Really Smile?

A wild dog

Do dogs smile? We’ve all seen the helicopter tail when we get home, ask if it’s dinner time, or take our 4 legged pal hiking. This is often accompanied by a bouncy body, soft eyes, and a wide, panting mouth. Is it really a smile, or are we simply translating our human emotions onto our dogs – known as anthropomorphizing?

Barton Heights Veterinary Hospital explored this question, and here’s what we’ve discovered!

Say Cheese!

Dogs use their bodies to express emotion in many ways. They are hard wired to please us, and to respond to human facial expression and emotion. “Smiling” is most likely an adaptive behavior and facial expression with a wide range of evolutionary benefits. Some of these are:

Communicate deference – in greeting situations, either human or canine, your dog may engage in the “submissive grin”. In this posture, her stance may be lower than normal with her lips pulled away from her teeth. She’s actively seeking attention in a nonthreatening manner.

Mediate conflicts – the submissive grin may also be used when she’s being scolded, as in those dog shaming videos you see on the internet. Showing deference to avoid conflicts (with dogs or humans) may also include lip licking, looking away, squinting eyes, or lifting one paw.

Facilitate bonding – dogs are masters at human facial expression, and when their “smiling” is endorsed by humans, they are likely to continue it! When we like the behavior we see, we release oxytocin (the bonding and love hormone). And when we react, laugh, give treats, or clap our hands, we reinforce the behavior in our dogs, stimulate their own oxytocin production, and increase our bond with them.

A Learned Response

The dog smile usually occurs in social situations when the dog is relaxed and appears happy, which is why many dog owners perceive it as a smile.

In the human world, smiles are contagious. When we perceive our dog as smiling, we almost always smile back, feel happy ourselves, and pay positive attention to our dogs. This further reinforces our perception that our dogs are smiling, and it reinforces their “smiling” behavior. So, over time, your dog’s smile may actually mean that they’re happy.

Like people, each dog is an individual with their own expressions, emotions, intelligence, and experiences. Therefore each dog communicates differently.

A Word Of Caution

The submissive grin can also look very near to a snarl. Dogs will pull back their lips from their front teeth when they are about to bite. It may be hard to tell if the dog is appeasing you or taking an aggressive stance.

Always take the body language of the whole dog into account to tell if they are happy or aggressive. Postures and body language that may be cautionary are:

  • Stiff or frozen posture
  • Eyes wide with lots of white showing
  • Tense mouth, curled lips
  • Wrinkled nose
  • Growling

If you have any doubt that your dog is smiling as a greeting behavior or to show appeasement, or if you see any signs of aggression, contact your veterinarian, who may refer you to a certified dog trainer or a veterinary behaviorist.

Do Dogs Smile?

Although dog behaviorists can explain the evolutionary science behind the dog smiling phenomenon, dog owners may still say – “of course, my dog is smiling!” – we see it every day!

If you have seen your dog smile, let us know the next time you’re in to see us! And if you have questions about your dog’s behavior, please don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment today.