Veterinarian-written / veterinarian-approved articles for your dog.

How Dogs Smile

dog_grinPhilosophy is the talk on a cereal box
Religion is the smile on a dog
-Edie Brickell & the New Bohemians

Your happy, wagging dog plants his butt and looks up at you, panting expectantly. The lips draw back, teeth exposed, and the corners of the mouth turn up ever so slightly. Is your dog actually smiling?

In the canine world, the smile is an appeasement gesture that indicates submission or nervousness. It might be better described as a “grin” or “grimace” that means “I’m not a threat. I won’t challenge you. I like you.” It is often accompanied by other submissive body language, such as stooped posture, lowered tail, and averted gaze. A dog might grin at a human in such way as a deferential greeting that we interpret as a smile.

But be careful. A dog with retracted lips and bared teeth may not be friendly. This is especially true if accompanied by erect body and tail posture and a growl. Many people have gotten bitten by misinterpreting this classic show of aggression as a friendly smile. As with all canine communication, it’s important to take all the body cues into consideration.

So what about the classic happy-dog smile, with full body wiggle, tongue lolling? A behavioral model suggests that dogs learn to mirror our expressions because we unwittingly teach them to do so. We actually train them to “smile” at us by rewarding them with snuggles or a treat. Steven Budiansky, author of The Truth About Dogs, proposed that dogs are intuitive brown-nosers that have adopted a survival-of-the-friendliest strategy. By learning our language, they have earned access to our homes, our food, and our hearts.

The smile of the dog: Heartfelt gesture or artful ploy? That may give you something to smile about.

Budiansky, Stephen. The Truth About Dogs: An Inquiry into Ancestry, Social Conventions, Mental Habits, and Moral Fiber of Canis familiaris. New York: Penguin, 2001.

Overall, Karen L. Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Small Animals. St. Louis: Mosby, 1997.

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