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Do Dogs Smile?

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Is it true that dogs can smile?

Is it true that dogs can 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?

The truth is (and sorry to burst your bubble) that saying a dog smiles is ultimately a form of anthropomorphism. Just because a dog shows their teeth and appears to grin does not necessarily mean it is smiling. It is similar to how a dog who is giving a paw is not really shaking hands. Humans and dogs are different species, and as such, engage in different behaviors and have different motivations.

A Dog "Smile" Is Not the Same as a Human Smile

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 a paw, therefore, is obviously not thinking about adhering to human etiquette. They have their 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; 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 closer observation.

However, interestingly, it appears that human smiles and dog smiles may ultimately stem from the same underlying reason. The ultimate reason for the smile may have evolved for humans, but they have appeared to remain the same for dogs!

Do dogs smile? It looks like it, but is it authentic?

Do dogs smile? It looks like it, but is it authentic?

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 that 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 animal for the purpose of demonstrating acceptance of 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 antagonistic 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 will refer to this teeth display as a submissive grin. As in primates, this submissive grin needs not 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 with concern about a submissive grin.

Dogs do not only "smile" with their mouth. You can see the joyful expression in these dogs with bright eyes.

Dogs do not only "smile" with their mouth. You can see the joyful expression in these dogs with bright eyes.

Snarl vs. 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 and snarling at guests and other dogs. A trainer was called to assess 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 Coren for his opinion and help for the day she was to be delivered. Once off the truck, Coren looked into the crate and all he heard was a whimper. The dog was then let out and soon he leaped up and repeatedly showed every tooth he had in his large mouth. Coren began to laugh as he realized this was a submissive, pacifying grin. Instead of being a sign of "back off or I'll bite," it was simply a sign suggesting "I'm not a threat."

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Read More From Pethelpful

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. However, some people will claim their dogs do actually smile with their mouths; indeed, ask them to ask their dogs 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 because the dog is gladly doing it in exchange for a reward!

© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli


Norma Lawrence from California on August 01, 2016:

Great article. Learned a lot from it. I attempt to write articles about pets. I have a Silky terrier mix that looks like she is smiling when she is very happy. Thanks for great share.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on June 21, 2015:

The smiling dogs look adorable even if they are not really smiling. You explained something to me. I have the fear grin. I smile and laugh when I am afraid. I can not force my mouth to stop it. I got in so much trouble as a kid in school because the teachers who was scolding me thought I was laughing at her. In humans, I believe it is called inappropriate affect. Voted up ++

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 22, 2014:

Yes, but interestingly there are also non-friendly tail wags. My article on tail communication has a video of a non-friendly tail wag.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on August 22, 2014:

Oftentimes dogs look like their smiling, but I was told that when their happy, their tails wag. Either way, I love my three dogs and enjoy it when they're happy.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 14, 2013:

Thanks Dorsi, sounds like a wonderful gal! Must be a pleasure to watch her smile, thanks for stopping by!

Dorsi Diaz from The San Francisco Bay Area on November 14, 2013:

Wonderful and informative hub about smiles! My new dog (she is about 1 1/2 now) smiles obsessively, and she is very submissive so this makes a lot of sense. She is a border collie and just wants to please everyone!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 23, 2013:

Au fait, sounds like you had a very special dog! I am sorry you developed an allergy, I am afraid I may have it a bit too as some nights I feel like I cannot breath and my doctor tested me and I resulted slightly allergic. Thanks for stopping by!

C E Clark from North Texas on October 23, 2013:

Growing up on a farm, our dog was an outside dog. Whenever we all got into the car and went somewhere, our dog would be all squirmy, tail wagging happy when we got back home and he would talk to us and 'smile' with happiness that we were back. He behaved similarly when we first went out the door in the morning after not seeing any of us through the night.

There was never any confusion between his happy 'smiles' and when he was threatening something. If his snarl didn't give it away, the look of his eyes certainly made it clear, but then I had lots of time to analyze his behavior. I haven't had a dog in years because I am allergic to them and develop asthma within minutes of being around them.

You have a lot of really interesting articles on dogs. I have a co-worker who is dog crazy (she has only 5 right now, but has had more all at once previously) and I am going to let her know about all your articles.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 16, 2013:

Millionaire, my dogs as well don't smile in the real sense of the word, but at times when they'e panting with their mouths open and their eyes are full of joy, I am sure they are smiling "internally.".

Shasta Matova from USA on October 16, 2013:

Zeus shows excitement and happiness in many ways, but like other dogs, he doesn't smile. It does look like fun though, so maybe I will train him to do so.

On the other hand, it makes me think of all the photos we have nowadays that we ask people to smile. Maybe it is to show that they are happy, but now I am thinking maybe in the past, they didn't smile, because they wanted to look hardworking and not submissive!

Bala from India on June 24, 2013:

Thank you Alex! Amazing stuff your Hub is!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 24, 2013:

Yes, many people have been putting smiling on cue! just say "smile" followed by the hand signal and then praise and reward it,, over and over. At one point the word "smile" should be enough and you wont' need to use the hand signal, good luck!

Bala from India on June 23, 2013:

My dog smiles alex! She puts up a wide grin when brother shows hand with is fingers all curved forward like a claw. She does this only when my brother get his hand really to her face. I feel that she does want him doing that and that's why she grins at him...

What do you think? Can I train her to smile on my command.?

WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on August 18, 2012:

My yellow lab was an opportunistic thief, and when she got caught, she would slink off wearing a submissive grin. She also used it when greeting newcomers, and they either thought she was about to bite or that she was smiling. She was just being submissive,

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2012:

Your welcome! My dogs "smile too'" but with their eyes and open mouth, I am going to post a picture soon.

gloshei on July 11, 2012:

Ha ha if only Jinnie smiled I would be over the moon, there is a sparkle in her eyes when she's happy as with all dogs, so I guess it's her way of smiling.

Good hub and brought a smile to my face Grrrrr. Thanks

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2012:

You are welcome Thelma. You Angus sounds like a silly boy, gotta love those smiles!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2012:

Thank you purnimamoh, I loved those pictures and thought they were funny. They sure bring a 'smile" to my day!

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2012:

Thanks for stopping by Dzymslizzy. I too noticed that the 'smiling' on cue does not look that natural as an authentic submissive grin, just as in people it looks like forced "smiles" lose spontaneity! This was my anthropomorphic assessment, lol! Take care!

Thelma Alberts from Germany on July 11, 2012:

Very interesting and informative hub. The photos are great. Angus, my dog smiles. He smiles at me when we are playing and when I tickle him, he has a wide smile. He loves to be tickled by me. Thanks for sharing.

purnimamoh1982 on July 10, 2012:

Interesting hub. My dog does similar things. The photographs make your hub so interesting. Voted up and followed

Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 10, 2012:

HA! That first photo is too cute! That dog actually does appear to be "smiling." Whereas in the video of the dog "smiling" on cue, the display is actually more toward the open-toothed, lip-curled snarl expression...perhaps pooch is none too happy with this game....only doing it for the treats, after all...and snarling at himself in self-loathing. (right--dog psych 101--there's your anthropomorphic assessment for ya!) LOL ;-)

Interesting...I believe I'd read before, about the 'fear grin' concept and its evolution. Thanks for the refresher course.

I didn't vote in your poll, as we no longer have a dog, and when I did, I taught other kinds of tricks...

Voted up, interesting and useful.

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