There are some lovely memes and photos on the internet showing a gorgeous dog smile. Is this really a genuine smile of happiness though? Can a dog really smile?
We all know about how great your relationship with your dog can be. When you walk through the door they rush over, eyes bright, tail wagging, sometimes bringing you a toy. They certainly know how to communicate their joy.
However, there are two factors at play here. The first is that we know that dog body language is not the same as human body language. The second is that most of us will admit that we are prone to anthropomorphizing our four-legged friends – projecting human characteristics onto them.
So, are dogs really smiling?
What is a dog smile?
We would describe a smile as the manipulation of your facial muscles, so the mouth is turned up, sometimes with and sometimes without exposing the teeth.
In humans this is related to being happy.
It’s a good idea here to think about complex emotions and whether dogs have them too. There’s believed to be an area of the brain called the neocortex, used for higher order thinking but also home to the limbic system which is responsible for memory, motivation, behavior and emotion.
All mammals have this system, but it is different across the species. Humans have the most well-developed neocortex of all animals.
Scientists have concluded that although dogs have a less developed neocortex, they do exhibit intentional behaviors and experience emotions – so they can be happy, playful or bored. Let’s face it, we all knew that already, but it’s nice to have the science confirm it!
Read more about How to Test Your Dog’s Intelligence.
Canine Body Language
Dogs have a large range of language, both physical and verbal to communicate with one another. This can be quite subtle, for example the tail wags when the dog is feeling strong emotions, but the position and direction of the wag can tell you more information about whether the emotion is positive or negative.
Other body language includes hunching to the ground as a sign of fear or stress, the submissive exposure of the tummy, or the bow to initiate a game.
It’s easy to misread facial expressions in dogs, because they often don’t mean the same as when we use them as humans.
For example, we yawn when we are tired, but dogs yawn when they are stressed. If a dog yawns when a child is playing with them, it’s time to move the child on to a new occupation – the dog is trying to tell them they don’t like the game. A quick lick of the lips has the same message.
When a dog exposes their front teeth in what could loosely be described as a smile, you have to look at the wider posture and attitude.
Obviously, if the look is combined with hard eyes, raised hackles, a twitching tail and a fierce growl then it is most definitely a snarl rather than a smile and is a warning signal of fear and possible aggression. On the other hand, if the dog has a loose and wiggly posture and soft eyes, then the message is much more of a happy dog.
In other words, yes, dogs do have a natural body language that we can interpret as a happy smile.
The theory is that the smile appears when a dog is getting positive attention, when it anticipates pleasure or when it is recognizing a friend.
A strong bond with humans
Of course, dogs have lived with humans for around 30,000 years and we have developed a very special bond. Not only this, but they are pretty smart animals. Part of the smiling that we see has evolved over time as what we call adaptive behavior as the dogs have become very adept at observing and manipulating humans.
One example of this was observed in a study (published in Current Biology) which presented both wolves and dogs with a container of meat.
When the wolves realized they couldn’t open the container, they stalked off. By contrast, when the dogs found they couldn’t open the container, they turned around and gave the nearest human a long, enquiring gaze, as through asking the human to help complete the task.
When dogs have exhibited the natural happy body language that looks like a smile, they have been rewarded by the humans’ reaction. Whether this is by praise, stroking and petting or giving treats, they have learnt that the happy, relaxed, “smiling” face gets rewarded by the human.
This is called operative conditioning, in just the same way that we teach the dog to sit by giving it a reward when it sits on command.
Bizarrely, some of these rewards are completely unconscious. As humans, when we see a smile, we often react completely subconsciously by smiling back and by a flood of oxytocin through our bodies, which the dog can recognize!
On the other hand, there is little scientific evidence to support the idea that dogs intentionally smile at us when they are happy. To confirm this, more scientific research would be needed to see how the facial expression correlates with different situations.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the dog is smiling intentionally or not. We are aware that this facial expression, when combined with a relaxed posture and soft eyes, signals that the dog is happy, and we know that we have a special relationship with our pooch, so we don’t really need to worry about whether they are smiling at us.
What Other Dog Language Should we be Aware of?
The bark has a huge range of meanings and you will often need to combine it with body language to get the true meaning, but studies have shown that just by listening to a recording of a dog barking, humans are able to distinguish between a playful bark, a bark to get your attention, an aggressive bark and a bored bark.
Eye contact has just as many meanings for dogs as it does for humans and you can tell the difference between a hard eye – cold, angry and challenging, and a soft eye – loving, warm, almost squinting. In addition, the avoidance of eye contact is often down to nervousness or feeling uncomfortable.
Tail Movement can also be interpreted in different ways. First, you need to get to know your dog’s neutral tail position. Some breeds such as Beagles and the Japanese breeds have the tails curled up most of the time. Greyhounds and Whippets tend to have theirs curled under their bellies and Pugs and Boston Terriers don’t use tail wagging all that much at all.
Most dogs’ neutral tail position is hanging down.
Here are just some of the messages you can read from your dog’s tail:
- A raised tail combined with ears pricked and eager eyes indicates an alert and prepared dog.
- If a tail lifts to a vertical position or curls over the back, it’s a sign of aggression. They are trying to look bigger.
- A dog’s tail lowering or even between the rear legs suggests fear and submission.
- When your dog’s tail stops wagging and they freeze, they may feel threatened but don’t want to appear aggressive, for example if a stranger starts to pet them.
- A fast wag indicates excitement, especially combined with a wiggle of the hips.
- The tail can also wag to indicate insecurity or aggression. A very tight flick of the tail from side-to-side can be a sign of insecurity and a vertical tail wagging may indicate that the dog is feeling very threatened and therefore aggressive.
Frequently Asked Questions about Dog Smiles
It does appear that some breeds have a more obvious smile than others. Dogs that are known to smile include:
• Pharaoh Hounds
• Jack Russells
• Golden Retrievers
• Pit Bull
Research indicates that dogs make people happier. In fact, people from households with a dog are likely to be happier and calmer. The emotional communication that we’ve been talking about in this article is supportive of the human and can produce a strong bond and feelings of happiness.
In addition, the hormones (oxytocin, serotonin and dopamine) that make us feel good are all released automatically when our dog looks into our eyes, when we pet the dog, when we exercise the dog and when our dog smiles at us.
You can see that there is a lot more to a dog’s smile than there may first appear.
Our dogs really do smile when they are happy, and they have certainly developed a very strong bond with humans, so could well have learned to smile at us for the reward of the interaction this brings, though the scientific verdict is still out on this one.
The main takeaway from this:
We have a really special bond with our dogs. They bring us health and happiness. To get the best out of this amazing relationship, we should make the effort to learn and read their communication with us, from their smiling face to show us they are happy, to more subtle cues in the glint of their eye or the flick of their tail.
Forrest is a lover of dogs, the wild outdoors, deep mysterious conversations… and coffee. He is the owner of several websites, including Canine Weekly. He resides in Austin, Texas.