Can a dog smile? It depends on who you ask. Many Dog Trainers and Animal Behaviorists will tell you that dogs cannot smile, at least not in the true sense of a smile. But ask dog owners if they ever saw their dog smile and you will get at least a few who respond with a great, big YES!
This is because not all dogs smile. In fact most dogs never smile on purpose. But let’s take a step back and define what a smile is. The Oxford Language Dictionary defines a smile as:
[To] form one’s features into a pleased, kind, or amused expression, typically with the corners of the mouth turned up and the front teeth exposed.Oxford Language
Human Smiles vs a Dog Smile
People can smile in many different ways. They can pull back their lips to form a crescent shape with their mouth, but not show their teeth. They can give a great big smile with an open mouth and all their teeth showing, or something in between.
Dogs on the other hand do not have the same ability to move their mouths like we do. The structure of their mouth is different than ours. A typical dog smile looks more like the white dog shown below. We can see that he has an open mouth. The corners of their mouth are pulled back and slightly up, forming a crescent shape. In addition they often have their tongue hanging out.
Most experts agree that although this facial expression looks like a smile, it is not done intentionally. According to the ASCPA Pro article 7 Tips on Canine Body Language the dog is simply in a relaxed state.
A True Smile
The common belief is that in order for a dog to have a true smile two things must happen.
1. They must intentionally manipulate their mouth to form a smile.
2. They create the smile because they are happy.
Let’s look at the first criteria. There are plenty of videos on the web showing dogs that can purposely pull back their lips to show their front teeth even when they are not acting aggressive. So the first criteria is covered.
A word to the wise: Although some dogs will show their teeth for reasons other than aggression, most don’t. The most common reason for a dog to show their teeth is as a warning, ignoring this warning will most likely lead to further aggression. So if you come across a dog showing his teeth, it’s best to assume they are being aggressive until you are sure they are not. The ASPCA Pro has a good article called 7 Tips on Canine Body Language to help you understand what a dog is trying to tell you.
It’s the second criteria that is in question. Can a dog smile when they are happy? Based on my own observation I would answer no.
Humans don’t only smile when they are happy. We are taught to smile whenever we meet new people.
Why do we smile when meeting someone new?
In a study done in 2015, researchers at the University of California, Irvine found that a smile is an important first step in forming new relationships because people are highly attuned to and draw by positive emotions.
The Psychology Today article goes on to say that
‘smiles also cause our brains to release feel-good neurotransmitters, making both grinning individuals experience a rush of happiness. ‘
So if people smile to connect with other people, is it possible for some dogs to smile at us for the same reason?
The Canine Human Connection
There is plenty of research that shows how dogs have evolved so they are able to communicate with humans. In fact dogs are better at communicating with us than any other animal including our closest ancestor the Chimpanzee. Let’s take a look at some of the research.
In 2015, research showed that when dogs and their people stare into each other’s eyes, they have an increased level of the hormone Oxytocinsame in both parties. This is the same hormonal response we have when bonding to human infants. This may explain how we are able to closely bond with our dogs.
There is also that thing with finger pointing. Dogs seem to be the only animal, outside of humans, that understand the finger point. While there have been many studies on the matter none have come up with an answer as to why. But, dog training books will often suggest using hand motions in addition to verbal commands to train your dog. This is because dogs are able to pick up on hand motions faster than the verbal commands. At least mine does.
Yet another study in 2019 suggests that dogs have evolved to have two more facial muscles than their closest ancestors the wolf. The additional facial muscles allow dogs to have a greater range of eyebrow movements as compared to wolves.
The study, which looked at both behavioral and anatomical data, states that the eyebrow movement ‘resembles an expression humans produce when sad, so its production in dogs may trigger a nurturing response in humans’.
So why can’t dogs learn to smile?
So if dogs are able to connect with us on the same level as a baby, understand us better than any other animal and move their eyebrows in a way that resembles a sad face, is it that hard to believe that a dog can smile as a way to communicate with us?
It might be helpful to tell you a little bit about Bella. Bella started her life in Georgia as part of an unplanned litter. When her original family realized they could not take care of the puppies they gave them and the mom up for adoption. According to the release papers her mom was a Rat Terrier and the dad was reported as a Miniature Poodle.
Once in the shelter system, she was transported north where she would have a better chance to be adopted. She was about 3-4 weeks old at the time. Since she was too young to be removed from her mother, she and her canine family stayed with a foster family until they were old enough to be adopted.
We found Bella on Petfinder.com. She was with a Humane Society Shelter about 2 hours from where we live. Bella was 9 weeks old when she came to live with us.
So as you can see Bella has had a lot of changes and caretakers in a very short amount of time. Even with all the changes early on, Bella loves people.
What makes Bella smile?
Bella doesn’t smile all the time or on Que. Though I am trying to teach her to smile on Que. So far she only does it when she hasn’t seen us for a while or if she is meeting a new person.
We first noticed the smile a couple of weeks after we brought her home. She would smile at our kid’s friends when they came over.
Now she didn’t just smile at the kids. She would whine, wiggle, dance and jump in excitement every time someone came to the house. It wasn’t just with the kids either. Any new person would be greeted in the same manner. She wants to make friends with everyone she meets.
Bella will also smile at us upon our return if we leave her home alone for more than a few minutes. She seemed to understand the difference between when we just go outside the house and when we leave the house completely.
Bella also greets me every morning with the same smile and excitement as she does when I leave the house. Which is funny because she sleeps in the same room.
Bella’s Communication Style
Bella tends to be very communicative. Whether it’s through the wide range of sounds she makes or her movements, we can often tell what she wants. She is the first dog in all my years of living with dogs that was able to communicate as well as she does. Bella will let me know when she does not like something, like brushing out knots or when she wants something, like a bone to chew on. She is not the most obedient dog. Not that she is bad, but she has that terrier independence going on.
So back to Bella’s smile, it is different than when she shows her teeth because she does not like something. When smiling she mainly shows her front teeth. When she is showing displeasure she will show more of her side teeth and fangs.
The pictures of Bella smiling are from videos I took over a couple of mornings. She is constantly moving while she greets me in the morning so the videos do not come out well. If I can get a good video I will post it.
If you were able to watch the video you would see that Bella sneezes every time she tries to smile. She can only hold the smile for a couple of seconds before sneezing.
The interesting thing about the sneezing is that it only happens when she is smiling to greet someone. If she is showing her teeth as a warning she does not sneeze.
Nurture vs nature
So the next logical question would be; does Bella smile because she is rewarded for doing so?
I can’t say that she is not rewarded for smiling since it does make me want to pay attention to her. We do encourage the smiling, but she is not given a treat for smiling, only affection. I am sure if she received a negative response to the smiling she would stop doing it.
Bella’s smile started naturally when she was just a couple of months old. Also remember that Bella will smile for people who come into the house. Most of them never notice her smile.
More Dogs Can Smile
As it turns out Bella is not the only dog that smiles when meeting people. While doing some research on the subject I came across the article Why Doggie, What Beautiful Teeth You Have! by Patricia McConnell author of The Other End of the Leash. In it, she tries to address what dogs mean when they show their teeth in a non-aggressive way. She states that she sees it as “an expression of ambivalence, with a component of anxiety or submission, with a little something extra thrown in that we might call happiness.”
Ultimately she asks her readers if they have ever witnessed their dogs show their teeth in a friendly gesture. As it turns out there are many other dogs that smile when they are welcoming someone home. You can see the responses via the link above.
Although dogs that can smile are not limited by breed, there is one breed that seems to smile more than any other. That is the Chesapeake Bay Retriever. It’s so common to see them scrunch up their nose and show their teeth in a non-aggressive way that it’s called the Chessie Smile.
The Submissive Grin
I’d be remissed if I didn’t mention submissive grins. Most experts believe that the smile I see on Bella is actually a submissive grin. An article on VetStreet describes a submissive grin as an appeasement gesture to show others that she’s not a threat.
Isn’t that the same reason we smile when meeting new people? To show other people we are friendly?
There is also the submissive grin that happens in dog shaming videos. This is when a dog is being reprimanded for doing something wrong. While the look of the smile is the same, the reasons behind the smile are definitely different.
In Bella’s case she does not smile after getting into trouble. If she senses we are unhappy with something she has done she will show her belly.
Also Bella doesn’t smile every time she sees someone. Only if it been awhile since she last saw them or they’re new people who appear friendly.
Can a Dog Smile?
So do dogs smile because they are happy? So far there is no evidence that I found supporting this. But is it possible that some dogs will smile with the intent of making friends?
I think if they can learn hand gestures, cause our hearts to melt when we look into their eyes and mimic human facial expressions, then why not learn to smile when meeting people. Maybe it’s just a matter of time before all dogs greet us with a grin.
Can a Dog Smile Resources
- Are Dogs Really Smiling at Us? – LiveScience.com
- 7 Tips on Canine Body Language
- Why Making New Friends Doesn’t Have to be Intimidating
- How dogs stole our hearts
- Dogs developed a range of facial expressions after humans domesticated them, study says
- My Dog Smiles When She Greets People — Is This Normal?
- Do Dogs Smile? 5 Dog Mouth Questions Answered!