Have you ever seen your dog flash you a silly smile? Does it just warm your heart? It’s got all the characteristics of a smile—open mouth, tongue hanging down, those cute pearly whites—but is that goofy facial expression an actual smile? And does it mean you have a happy dog?
A smile can definitely tell us how a human feels, but a smile isn’t the best indicator of a dog’s emotional state. Instead, we look for a dog’s body language—a wagging tail, a wiggly body, and an energetic attitude. But, let’s be honest, there are times when a dog appears to be wearing a big old silly grin.
So, do dogs smile? There’s no definitive scientific answer to this question, though many dog owners will swear their dog is a serial smiler. What we do know is that it’s perfectly natural to project our own behaviours and feelings onto animals, even when they may not actually apply. Moreover, each dog expresses herself differently—a single look doesn’t mean the same thing on every dog.
That said, there are a few ways to think about what it means when our dogs show us their pearly whites. Sometimes we’re seeing the submissive grin, sometimes the snarl, and sometimes the smile.
The Submissive Grin
This looks something like a smile because a dog will show their teeth. But it’s actually a gesture that indicates submission, fear, or social awkwardness. The dog will lift the front part of his lip below the nose, exposing the front incisors.
This dog behaviour can happen when a dog encounters a larger or more dominant dog, or when a new situation arises and the dog isn’t sure what to expect. Sometimes a dog may be confused by a new situation and she’ll make this expression as a catch-all backup plan. Like the teenager shrugging his shoulders. She may be saying, “Mum, what’s all this business? I really don’t know if I like it.”
You’ll find a few examples below. The Chihuahua is giving a true submissive grin. And in the video, Rubi the dachshund repeatedly makes this face, almost involuntarily, while her owner plants raspberries on her belly. Perhaps she’s thinking, “What is this?! I love it, hate it, love it!”
When you see this face, consider the full context of the situation, look for other body language, and take into account the dog’s overall disposition and behaviour patterns.
This is a more familiar and truly defensive expression, a warning to other dogs to check themselves. It’s only slightly different in appearance from the submissive grin. With the grin, a dog lifts his front lip up like a window shade. With a snarl, the mouth pulls back and up, using more facial muscles.
You’ll often see this face on dogs who feel protective of their food, or when a new or smaller dog arrives on the scene and he needs to be put in his place. Some dogs use this face quite often, but you may never see this expression on a laid-back, happy-go-lucky pet. It may even be an early warning sign of aggression.
While there is no technical definition for a dog smile, dog lovers tend to know one when they see one. The dog looks relaxed and joyful. His mouth is open, his tongue is visible, and you see an upward curl at the fold of the lips. The dog has a relaxed body, his tail is wagging, and his whole being just looks happy.
But is this proof the dog is blissed out and completely loving life? Maybe. It’s hard to know. Certain breeds, particularly those with smushed noses, look very smiley when they’re panting or tired. Pugs have a naturally smiley face, for example, but they’re also generally easygoing dogs.
The Bottom Line
When we see a smiling dog, we can’t assume the dog is feeling ecstatic. If she’s just finished your four-mile training run, she’s probably trying to cool down and catch her breath. She was happy back at mile one. If you’ve taken her to the dog park to see her best friend or to the beach and she’s been splashing around in the waves, she’s probably tired and happy!
Of course, you know your dog best. And in the beaming face of uncertainty, it’s nice to just enjoy that gorgeous smile and give one right back.