Do Dogs Smile?
Do Dogs Really Smile?
There are countless owners who claim their dogs smile, but is there any truth to this? The picture above seems to suggest that dogs can smile and in a funny way, too. But why do dogs smile and what makes them open their mouths and show their teeth in such an expressive way? Truth is, (and sorry to burst your bubble), saying a dog smiles is ultimately a form of anthropomorphism. Just because a dog shows its teeth and appears to grin does not necessarily mean it is smiling in the same way a dog who is giving a paw is not shaking hands. Humans and dogs are different species, and as such, engage in different behaviors and have different motivations.
While it may be tempting to think that Rover opens his mouth to smile, we must face the truth and accept the fact that dogs are dogs and humans are humans. If your dog gives you his paw, he is doing so because it is likely he has received some form of reinforcement. The reinforcement can be food, praise, or just a friendly pat. A dog giving paw, therefore, is obviously not thinking about adhering to human etiquette, but has its own rewarding reasons, courtesy of operant conditioning!
But why would a dog smile? Humans smile to denote positive emotions such as pleasure, joy, and happiness and the smile itself appears to be part of universal language. Do dogs smile for similar reasons? It does not appear as such. Dogs would otherwise be seen smiling all the time as they are quite joyful animals by nature! You would, therefore, expect a smile when your dog does something right, when you give him his favorite treat, and when he gets to greet his friends at the dog park. You would also expect a mischievous smile when he puts his nose in the most inappropriate places! Instead, smiles in dogs seem to appear quite out of context from a closer observation.
However, interestingly, it appears that human smiles and dog smiles may ultimately stem for the same underlying reason. Only thing is that in humans, the ultimate reason for the smile may have evolved, when in dogs it appears to have remained the same!
Joyful expression; dogs can smile with their eyes!
So Why Do Dogs Smile?
Are you wondering why Rover is smiling? Let's skip canines for a minute and look at human smiling first. Several biologists seem to agree that the origin of the smile stems from fear. Indeed, primatologist Signe Preuschoft believes that the smile traces back to over 30 million years ago and back in time it was used as a "fear grin" by our closest biological relatives. This behavior was often observed in monkeys and apes in the context of demonstrating to predators they were harmless and meant no threat. A silent, bare teeth display was often observed in tense situations as a pacifying signal, often demonstrated towards a superior partner. In other primate species, the behavior was often employed by an inferior animals for the purpose of demonstrating acceptance for the subordinate role. More about this can be read in the book, "Origins of Semiosis: Sign Evolution in Nature and Culture," by Winfried Nöth.
Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, after doing extensive research on facial expressions, claims that baring teeth is not always a threat. While lips curled back and teeth kept apart denote antagonist intentions, the exposure of teeth kept together always signals submission in the world of primates and the human smile may have evolved from that.
Our smiles, therefore, may have originated for the purpose of portraying submission, lack of threat and harmlessness. This fear grin appears to be the ancestor of the smile, and consequently, it appears to have evolved into a more sophisticated form that encompasses a variety of emotional states.
While dogs appear to be smiling, it is erroneous when it comes to semantics to call the teeth display a "smile". Because this grin is submissive in nature, a dog trainer well versed in dog body language or a behavior specialist, refers to this teeth display as a "submissive grin". As in primates, this submissive grin needs not to be confused with a snarl. In this case, the dog lifts the lips to show the fangs and the accompanying body language is hostile. There are several stories of dog owners calling a trainer or dog behaviorist concerned about a submissive grin.
Snarl Versus Submissive Grin
There are several stories of dog owners calling a trainer or dog behaviorist concerned about a submissive grin. In the book "How to Speak Dog" Stanley Coren talks about a reputable Irish Setter breeder receiving a distressed phone call from a client which had purchased one of her pups and was displaying aggression. The new owner explained that the dog was leaping repeatedly snarling at guests and other dogs. A trainer was called to asses the dog, but the trainer reported the dog was too out of control to handle so euthanasia was recommended.
Because the owner did not feel like doing this, the puppy was planned to be returned to the breeder. The breeder then decided to consult with Stanley Coren for his opinion and help for the day she was to be delivered. Once off the truck, Stanley looked into the crate and all he heard was a whimper. The dog was then let out and soon he leaped up and repreatedly showed every tooth he had in his large mouth. Stanley began to laugh as he realized this was a submissive, pacifying grin. Instead of being a red zone sign of "back off or I'll bite snarl" sign, it was a simply a white-flag sign suggesting "I'm not a threat".
Dog trained to smile on cue
But My Dog Really Smiles! It's a Trick I Taught Her!
Personally, I have never seen my dogs smile. Yet, I have a feeling that when they're panting happily with their mouths open and their eyes are bright, they are feeling some joyful emotion. In the last picture below my two Rotties and foster dog seem to be "smiling with their eyes."This was after a playful session. Some people though will claim their dogs do actually smile with their mouths; indeed, ask them to ask their dog to smile and their dogs will give a wide smile on command. The smile looks genuine, how can that be? In these cases, the dog owners have trained their dogs to smile on cue. How did they do that? Through a training method known as capturing. In capturing, you are basically rewarding behaviors that occur naturally. Because dogs tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded, the act of smiling can then be put on cue. In these cases, the smile starts really looking genuine; since the dog is gladly doing it in exchange for a reward!
A Puppy "Smile"
Does your dog smile?
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2012 Adrienne Janet Farricelli