Many times, when you pet your dog or grab their leash, their mouth will fall open, and their tongue will loll out. It makes it look like your dog is smiling. In fact, the internet is filled with thousands, if not millions, of photos of so-called smiling dogs. But are these dogs actually smiling? Can dogs smile? Is this intentional behavior in the same way that people smile at each other? It might come as a disappointment to learn, but dogs do not smile the way humans do. What you see as a smile on your dog’s face is actually something different. Here is everything you need to know about dog smiles.
Do Dogs Smile?
Contrary to popular belief, dogs do not smile. At least not in the same way that humans do. According to dog behaviorists, dogs do not purposefully grin as an outward appearance of happiness or contentedness. Many people think that their dogs smile when they are happy. But that is not the case. People think dogs smile due to anthropomorphism and evolutionary behaviors aimed at humans.
A true dog smile would be a deliberate action to show the teeth due to feeling happy. Dogs would do this on their own and among other dogs without any humans around. However, dogs never display this type of behavior when they are by themselves or around other dogs. In fact, in the wild, showing teeth is often a sign of aggression among dogs, not happiness. These reasons bolster the claim by scientists and behaviorists that dogs do not have true smiles.
Why Do Dogs Appear to Smile?
If you think your dog is smiling, you are not alone. Dogs appear to be smiling when they are happy, even though they technically aren’t. When dogs are happy and calm, their bodies relax. When a dog’s body relaxes, their mouths can drop open, and they can also pant. Their eyes might squint. They might show some of their teeth because their mouths are open. This appearance, with squinty eyes, mouth open, tongue out, and panting, looks like a smile. But it isn’t really. It is a byproduct of a dog feeling safe and relaxed.
The ASPCA writes: “A relaxed dog will likely have his mouth open and may be panting, with no facial or mouth tension. The corners of his mouth may be turned upward slightly.”
The difference between this look and a real smile is the fact that this is an involuntary reaction to feeling relaxed. A dog can pant for a number of reasons, including heat, stress, and happiness. But panting, or generally having the mouth open, is not connected to happiness in dogs. It is more associated with feeling relaxed or at ease.
Why Do Dogs Seem to Smile at People?
Dogs do a number of behaviors that are specifically aimed at humans. Behaviors like giving large eyes, looking guilty, begging, whining, and snuggling are all learned behaviors. Dogs are not dumb. They respond when they get something that they want. Dogs will look dopey and “smile” around people because it elicits positive behaviors. Dogs that “smile” get attention. They might get treats. They get love and have their picture taken. Dogs are responding to this positive reinforcement by doing behaviors that people like. That doesn’t mean that it is a true smile, though.
Do Dogs Smile at Other Dogs?
No. If you put a bunch of dogs together and watch them from afar, they will not smile at one another. Smiling is not natural dog behavior. Dogs have a plethora of other social behaviors like tail wagging, bowing, barking, and tail position. But they don’t smile at each other. This is one of the ways that we can tell that what people interpret to be a smile on the face of their dogs is actually something else.
Do Dogs Copy Human Smiles?
No. Dogs are not copying the smiles on the faces of their humans. Dogs will “smile” when people smile if they know it will get them some sort of time or attention. Many dogs will feel calm and happy when their humans are calm and happy. In fact, many dogs will often feed off of their owner’s energy. That means when you are laughing and smiling, your dog will also be relaxed and appear to smile. However, they are not mimicking our smile.
How to Tell If a Dog Is Happy
If dogs don’t show happiness by smiling, how can you tell if your dog is happy? Dogs display happiness primarily through body language, not facial expressions. That means that you should be looking at your dog’s body, not their face. Happy dogs will have erect tails that wag, relaxed muscles, droopy ears, and calm eyes. Happy dogs are also comfortable sleeping. (Unhappy or anxious dogs will be reluctant to sleep due to stress.)
Happy dogs also eat their food in a timely manner and will beg for additional food. They will also seek out human contact; they can let out yippy barks, and they can wiggle or shake their whole body. These things are much stronger indications of happiness than a “smile” or a happy look on your dog’s face. A dog can appear to smile and be tense, anxious, and unhappy.
Dogs cannot smile in the same way that humans do. Many people believe that their dogs smile when they are happy, but they are not actually smiling. Dogs can look like they’re smiling when their bodies relax, but it is not intentional behavior. In fact, dogs do not have smiles in their social toolbox. Dogs will not smile to display happiness or communicate with other dogs. That means that they are not true smilers, but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy their dopey faces when they are relaxed.