Human and dog body language is so different! And yet, dogs are always communicating, despite not being able to speak human language. This is why it’s so important to understand what our pups are saying to us.
Many first-time dog parents have questions like, do dogs actually smile? What does a dog smile mean?
As you can see, there are many ways in which a dog can smile. Let’s look into them all below to see how dogs actually smile and why it happens.
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Are Dogs Happy when they Smile?
What most people think of as a “smile” on a dog is actually a sign of stress. Dogs don’t smile like humans. However, some of us describe our dogs as smiling when they have a relaxed face and we know they’re happy.
Here are the expressions most people talk about when they say their dog is smiling:
- Panting with an open mouth
- Bared teeth with wrinkled nose, pinned back ears
- A tight, closed mouth turned heavily upward into a “grin”
- A relaxed face with no tension, possibly with the tongue out or mouth curved slightly upward
Let’s go over these one by one. First, dogs may appear to smile when they’re panting. Their mouth is open, their teeth are showing, and the corners of their mouth might turn upward.
This isn’t a smile, however. Panting is how dogs sweat, and it means they’re either hot, stressed, or have just finished running about!
However, I’d say dogs can be happy while panting. They might look very relaxed and feel everything humans feel when we smile from contentment.
Next is bared teeth. Though this isn’t always a sign of aggression, it typically means your dog is stressed or angry. Tense features, pinned back ears, and wrinkles in the snout confirm this.
A closed-mouth “smile” is another one commonly mistaken for happiness, when the dog is actually very stressed. Tell-tale signs are tense facial features, a tail between the legs or wagging, or cowering downward. This is often used to appease, especially when the dog is in trouble.
Lastly, a relaxed face with an open mouth and teeth on display is as close as dogs get to a true smile. They might have their tongue hanging out of the side of their mouth, their eyes shut, and the corners of their mouth turned slightly (but not dramatically) upward.
Do Dogs Smile with Teeth?
As we discussed above, a dog showing all of their teeth can be a sign of aggression. The question to ask yourself is: what other parts of the mouth are showing?
If the teeth are clenched together with lips curled back to display them, your dog is likely upset. This could be a sign of aggression.
If the inside of the mouth is showing and the teeth just happen to be on display, your dog might be smiling! Pay attention to their muscles: are they loose, or tense? Relaxed muscles indicate happiness while tense facial muscles indicate stress.
Your dog might also be panting with their mouth open, and their teeth showing as a result. Panting happens when your dog is hot, stressed, excited, or just exerted themselves physically. It’s not a voluntary action like smiling, but your dog’s way of sweating.
Do Dogs Smile to Mimic Humans?
Dogs don’t smile with teeth to mimic how we smile. However, if you coo and “aww” at your dog when they make a certain expression, they might make it more often for attention! This is known as positive reinforcement and is how many tricks are taught.
Dogs also seem to understand that when a human smiles, we are happy. They might get excited, wag their tail, and otherwise react when you smile at them.
They’re very smart and are always reading our body language, as this is the main way dogs communicate with one another.
Why do Dogs Smile when Guilty?
Many people will take videos of their dogs being “guilty” after tearing something up or digging through the trash. However, dogs don’t tend to connect their actions to your reactions, especially when the reaction comes much later.
Let’s say your dog chews your favorite slippers right after you leave home. Then, they drink some water, chew their toys, and fall asleep on the couch. You come home, see the slippers, get angry, and your dog hides in a corner cowering with a smile-like expression on their face.
They might roll over to show their tummy, lick their lips repeatedly, and have the whites of their eyes on display.
These are all stress signals, and some of these actions are meant to calm and appease you. They’re saying, don’t be mad! This is a way of protecting themselves.
However, this doesn’t mean your dog knows what they did to upset you. Chances are, they don’t! The most they might connect is that when there are torn up items on the floor when you come home, you get upset.
But connecting the fact that they caused the chewed up slippers, therefore their actions are what has upset you, is a step further. We have no evidence that dogs understand cause and effect this in-depth.
This is why trainers advise not following through on consequences unless you can catch your dog in the act, so that they understand exactly what they’ve done wrong.
And even then, scolding, physical punishments, and using the crate as a punishment don’t work. You’re better off putting your things out of reach. Put your dog in a puppy-proofed room or crate train them to keep them, and your stuff, safe.
It’s also important to figure out what is causing your dog to chew inappropriately.
Addressing the root of the problem not only prevents it from happening again, but takes your dog’s needs and feelings into consideration as well.