“Oh my God! Such a cute smile! Quickly take a pic before the smile vanishes”. This is the one thing every dog guardian has said at least once in their lifetime. That dog smile can melt the hardest of hearts and bring a smile to even the coldest of people. However, the question arises, is a dog smile a real thing? I will be addressing this exact question in this blog post. That relaxed face, wide grin, and soft eyes are the picture-perfect image of happiness. But do dogs smile in the same manner as humans? Let’s find out.
If you want to know more about dog behavior, psychology, training, breeds, and the dog care process, please subscribe to The Happy Puppers. Your subscription will allow me to notify you the moment the next blog post is released. This way, you will never miss out on any crucial information that can make you a better dog guardian. If you like to watch videos, please subscribe to the YouTube channel of The Happy Puppers, Shruti, and Delta. Please do not forget to ring the notification bell.
Topics covered in this blog post
Is dog smile a real thing?
When you see a dog smirking, it does look like your dog is probably feeling happy. However, it also causes guardians to wonder, is dog smile for real? Why do dogs smile? What to do so that their dog smiles more? When we see our pets imitating a human grin, it makes us happy as well. When dogs display such cute reactions during a belly, chest, or ear rub, guardians are forced to wonder, ‘is this a real thing, or are we just imagining our dogs smiling’? Let’s find out
Do dogs feel?
Before I answer the question of whether a dog smile is a result of real emotion or not, you need to understand if dogs feel emotions. Thanks to the advancement in MRI technology, it has been proven that dogs feel too, just like us. Studies have shown that dogs have sections in their brain that are similar to humans and are responsible for processing emotions.
Just as when we pet our dogs, we feel a rise in oxytocin levels, the same effect occurs in dogs as well. Petting, hugging, kissing, or showing affection in the case of dogs produces a sensation that is similar to the one in humans. Therefore, if hugging your dog instigates parental emotions in you, similar emotions are also incited in your dog. Therefore, the answer to, ‘do dogs feel emotions’ would be yes.
Understanding the history behind the dog smile
The answer to this question goes back 30,000 years. That is the time when dogs started to become domesticated companions. Over time, dogs and humans developed a special bond. A non-verbal form of communication also developed between humans and their K9 companions. A lot of this communication was unspoken and reliant on body language.
A study done by Alex Benjamin with a focus on cognition from the University of York, UK, said that studying dog behavior also allows us to understand different forms of social communication that occur between species. Most of the research conducted by Alex reinforces the ideology that the specific communication bond that humans share with dogs is pretty unique. One example of this is the finding that dogs tend to embrace the human gaze and use eye contact to convey a lot of emotions. This is not something that has been observed in the case of other species.
Behavior responsiveness towards dog smile
Another study published in the journal Current Biology checked the difference in responsiveness between dogs and wolves. The test involved checking how these two animal species would respond to opening a container and getting meat that was inside the container. In the case of wolves, once they realize that they cannot get the meat out of the container, they gave up on the project and stalk off. However, in the case of dogs, once they realized that they could not get the item out of the container, they turned around and looked at the humans in a longing manner. This suggests that dogs understand that their guardians can help them complete a task if it is difficult for them on their own.
Another study has also shown that humans and dogs both experience the production of oxytocin when they look into each other’s eyes for a long duration. Oxytocin is the hormone that is produced by mothers when they look at their children. Oxytocin also has a major role in the case of social bonding. Dogs that sniffed oxytocin on their humans would spend more time staring at their guardians.
Understanding the shared gaze in dog smile
As I mentioned before, dogs do not prefer to use spoken language as their mode of communication. Their preference is to use body language and unspoken communication methods. Dogs who interact with their guardians through their body language are much easier to train and are more cooperative. Establishing eye contact and maintaining the gaze with their humans is a way for dogs to gather information about how the human is feeling as well as to communicate their own emotions to their guardian.
Now that we know the dogs do feel emotions, is there any way they express them? Is the dog smile, a way for dogs to communicate with us?
Research on understanding dog smile
Studies published in the scientific reports journal mention that the expression of a relaxed open mouth in dogs occurs when the dogs are in positive settings. For example, if you have invited another dog on a play date. However, if this can be specifically called a smile or not is still to be determined.
To understand this behavior, special research techniques need to be used like FACS. These would help understand how a particular facial expression of the dog correlates with the situation they are in and what is the motivation behind the displayed expression.
If you have been interpreting your dog’s open mouth soft eyes gazing expression as a smile, I bet this is a surprise for you. However, one thing is for sure. This expression comes out only when dogs feel relaxed and content in their environment. This should also not matter because there are many other ways to figure out if your dog truly loves you or not. Smiling or the lack thereof is just one of those many factors.
Dogs are the only creatures who have been known to follow and recognize different human gestures. Even in the case of chimpanzees, who are supposed to be our closest ancestors, they cannot follow common cues as well as dogs.
Some studies have shown that dogs also prefer to be with those humans who use sing-song voices to talk and behave with them as if they are babies; like, “who is a good boy?” “Aren’t you the best buddy I have?” etc.
So that means dog smile is not real?
The wide mouth expression accompanied by the tongue rolling out and soft eyes do mimic what in the book of humans would be called a smile. Even the bearing of the teeth in some cases has been misinterpreted as a dog smile. However, the relaxed gaze, the tongue rolling out and the soft expression in the eyes occur only when the dog is happy. Therefore, to an extent, it can be said that this expression means that the dog is happy with you.
Dogs are masters of learning new tricks. If your dog figures out that something that he does makes you happy, he is likely to repeat that behavior. This factor can also be applied to the dog’s smile. Suppose your dog gives an expression that mimics a smile. He gets lots of treats, affection, cuddles, belly rubs, etc. The next time he displays that behavior, he is again rewarded with threats and affection. The dog realizes that displaying this particular behavior will get him a favorable response from his guardian. Therefore, your approving behavior treats and cuddles act as positive reinforcement for your dog to continue mimicking the expression of a smile.
Understanding the genetic side of the dog smile
According to experts, this behavior may have risen from Neoteny. Neoteny means that when species or certain animals are domesticated, they start to display certain aspects of their puppyhood and take it well into adulthood. Some of these behaviors include jumping, licking, tail wagging, emotional greetings, and the amazing and cute dog smile.
What does a dog smile look like?
In most cases, the smile of a dog is quite similar to that of a human. You will notice upturned lips and soft expressions in your dog’s eyes. To further explain this, a happy content dog will exhibit this behavior. He may or may not be panting. The corners of the mouth would be turned upwards. No tension around the mouth. The tongue may be lolling out.
There is a certain confusion when it comes to dogs showing teeth while smiling. If your dog is showing teeth and upturned lips, It may also be a sign of aggression. However, to judge whether your dog is displaying this as a sign of aggression or as a smile, you should look at your dog’s other bodily expressions.
If along with this you notice your dog is wagging his tail, the head is lowered, ears are flattened and the body posture is overall soft and non-aggressive, it is a sign that your dog is smiling and is not being aggressive. Displaying teeth is not always a sign of aggression. You need to look at the whole body of your dog to understand what your dog is trying to convey.
Dogs may not have the ability to smile. However, the expression commonly referred to as a smile will only be seen if your dog is relaxed and content in his environment. Therefore, if you notice your dog smiling, pay attention to what triggered that smile. The more you reciprocate that environment, the more you will see your dog smiling.
Can dogs mimic smiles?
Many people believe that dogs tend to mimic human behavior. This is true in most cases. However, in the case of dogs smiling, they do not mimic our behavior. On the contrary, if there is a favorable circumstance, they may display a gesture that looks like a smile. Over time, as and when that environment is repeated, your dog may respond similarly because it is a trained reaction. The first time your dog smiled, he got kisses and positive reinforcement from you. Therefore, he may display his behavior repeatedly because he likes the results.
In certain cases, your smiling may also trigger a smile in your dog. This is normally referred to as laughter contagion. Just as when one person yawns, another person in the vicinity also feels like yawning, when a person smiles, their dog may also feel like smiling, if he is happy. A dog’s smile can trigger the release of oxytocin in humans which can make them happy and in turn make their humans smile.
Do dogs respond to people’s smiles?
Dogs are experts at reading the body language of their guardians. If your dog shares a bond with you, he will know what you are thinking and feeling without you having to tell him. Dogs rely more on the non-verbal mode of communication. They have understood that smiling in the case of humans means a happy response.
As I said before, most dogs are amazing at understanding human body language. Even if you don’t openly show it your dog will know if you’re sad, disappointed, or happy.
Dogs also understand that if their guardian is happy, it means a good time for them. A happy guardian equals more treats, fun, extra attention, more cuddles, more kisses, etc. Dogs live to please their guardians. They like the fact that they can induce a happy response. They also like how we behave with them when we are happy. Since this is a positive reinforcement they will do things, again and again, to incite a happy response from us.
Is smiling a guilt response in dogs?
If you are an avid fan of watching dog videos like I am, you must have seen those videos where after a dog tears the pillow/sofa/tissue, he gives a toothy grin to the guardian. This pattern has been repeated across many videos with different dogs of different breeds. Does this mean that smiling is a sign of being guilty? In most cases, no.
In this case, one must be attentive to the body language of the dog. When the dog displays a grin after engaging in unwanted behavior, along with the grin the dog will also show submissive behavior. The head will be lowered, the ear will be flat against their heads, and they might be squinting their eyes. They will also show a waggy tail and their overall body posture would look very submissive.
This behavior does not indicate that your dog is smiling. It is more of an indication that your dog is behaving in a submissive manner. Your dog understands that he engaged in behavior that he was not supposed to. He also knows that you are not happy about it. So your dog is responding to your emotions and trying to calm you down.
Can dogs laugh?
This is the one question you can ask dog guardians and in most cases, they will say NO. Dogs may express an expression close to a human smile, but they definitely cannot express laughter.
The understanding nature of dogs makes them extremely in tune with our feelings. As I mentioned before, dogs heavily rely on non-verbal communication modes. You don’t have to tell them that you are happy. Your body language is enough to tell your dog that. Most dogs understand that if their guardian is laughing or smiling, their guardian is happy. Dogs love nothing more than to have their guardians happy. They also love to be around those who are laughing or happy. Dogs are extremely social animals. They love to participate in activities involving a lot of laughing or smiling people. The more the number of happy people, the merrier the dog.
Why can dogs not laugh?
Coming back to the discussion at hand, why can dogs not laugh? Scientists have been looking into this. However, human laughter is a complex procedure that involves multiple facial movements, vocalization, and breathing. A dog is not able to reproduce most of these factors. This is probably the reason why dogs do not laugh.
You must have noticed that some dogs who have exceptional mimicking capabilities would show behavioral modifications that mimic human laughter.
In most cases, dogs would rely on using their body language to show their guardians that they are very happy. This would include a smile, play bow, or tail wagging. If your dog is too excited or happy, he may also start engaging in zoomies, referred to as frantic random activity periods (FRAC).
Even though dogs cannot mimic exact human behavior, they have learned to display emotions in their language. These usually involve smiling, running around everywhere, jumping on their humans, etc.
Is your dog happy?
If dogs cannot display smiles like humans, does this mean they are truly happy? As I mentioned before, dogs have a variety of ways to express that they are happy and content in their environment. One of these would be tail wagging. Another would be a relaxed expression on their face. If your dog starts to zoom around the room or the yard, it is a sign that your dog is feeling happy.
Understanding the tail postures
How the tail looks can tell you a lot about your dog. If the tail looks neutral (the tail is at its natural position as per the breed), the dog is in a relaxed mode. In case it drops to a lower position, it is a sign that the dog is behaving in a submissive manner and is feeling anxious. If the tail is raised high up in the air, it is a dominant or aggressive motion. If the tail is wagging away, it is a sign that your dog is excited and happy.
Try to focus more on your dog’s body language instead of just the expression of a smile. Learning how your dog perceives the situation and what kind of body language he is displaying can allow you to understand much more about the psychology of your dog than having him smile. Try and analyze the whole of the body. Not just a part of it.
Your dog may not have the ability to smile like you. However, this does not mean that your dog did not express his happiness. Focus on the body language of your dog and you will know everything that your dog is trying to communicate with you. It is surprising how much dogs can say without using any form of verbal communication. This is something that we can learn from our canine companions.
Do you want to know more about dog psychology, training, breed details, and the care process? If yes, subscribe to The Happy Puppers. Your subscription will allow me to notify you the moment a new blog post is released. If you like watching videos, subscribe to the YouTube channel The Happy Puppers, Shruti, and Delta. Do not forget to ring the notification bell.
If you have any queries about this blog post or any other blog post on The Happy Puppers, feel free to reach out to me live on Twitch. I do co-working streams every day. You can get your queries addressed directly on Twitch. Alternatively, you can also leave your queries in the comments section below. I will be happy to help.
See you in my next blog post
Frequently Asked Questions
While scientists and veterinarians are still figuring out the exact reason why dogs smile, many believe that their facial expressions are a way of showing happiness, contentment, and joy. They may also smile to express excitement or affection for their owners. Smiling can also be a sign of submission when another dog or an owner is dominant.
Dogs can express their emotions in a variety of ways, including facial expressions, body language and vocalizations. Smiling is one way that dogs communicate their feelings. Dogs often smile when they are relaxed, happy and feeling safe. A dog’s smile might be subtle, with just the eyes and mouth slightly curved up in an expression of pleasure or joy. It can also be a big wide grin with teeth exposed showing intense happiness.
According to experts, some of the most “smiley” breeds include Labrador Retrievers, Cocker Spaniels, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels, Boxers, and Golden Retrievers. Those breeds usually have the broadest characteristic smiles that can be easily spotted by their owners.