- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Dogs have expressive, adorable faces, whether flashing the infamous puppy dog eyes or sticking their tongues out. We grin at them to show our love, but do dogs smile back at us? Yes, they do! While dogs can flash a cute, toothy grin, what’s interpreted as a smile can have various meanings depending on different individuals and situations.
Understanding the meaning behind a dog’s smile can help you build a trusting, loving bond. “Our dogs can’t speak to us verbally—as much as we wish they could—but they can through their body language,” says Becky Simmonds, a professional dog trainer and behaviorist at Breed Advisor. She says when we become attuned to our dog’s body language and smile meanings, we can support them when they’re anxious or stressed. Read on to learn what different dog smiles mean and how to smile back.
Do Dogs Actually Smile?
Many dogs smile. Like humans, a dog’s grin is characterized by upturned corners of the mouth with either a closed mouth or showing teeth.
So, it might be no surprise that when a dog smiles, we squeal joyfully. However, we may project our emotions when believing a dog “smiling” always indicates happiness. Dr. Carley Faughn, a board-certified applied animal behaviorist at Best Friends Animal Society, says that a dog’s smile is often misinterpreted as a cute behavior. If you can recognize what your pup is trying to communicate, it can help them feel safe, loved, and cared for.
What Does A Dog’s Grin Really Mean?
Just like humans, the intention behind a smile varies. After all, humans don’t always smile when they’re happy — the same goes for dogs. Since we’re unable to speak canine (yet), context cues can help us discover why a dog might smile and how they feel.
|Dog Smile + Accompanying Behavior||What It Means|
|Smile + Submission Roll||Appeasement, friendship, or wanting to play|
|Smile + Bared Teeth||Not always aggression, simply a tooth grin|
|Smile + Narrowed Eyes||Discomfort, assessing for safety, or if eyes are closed, it’s thought they’re trying to block out something scary/uncomfortable|
|Smile + Ears Back||Discomfort|
|Smile + Mouth Open and Tongue Lolling||Happiness, friendly, or comfortable|
|Smile + “Small” Body Posture||Anxiety, trying to make themselves as small as possible|
|Smiling + Panting||Anxiety, tired from playtime, or hot|
|Smiling + Repeated Yawning||Stress, discomfort, or yawning because a human yawned|
5 Reasons Your Dog Smiles At You
A dog’s smile isn’t as clear-cut as we believe. Our veterinarians and behaviorists detail a few reasons your pup loves to grin at you, including the following.
- They’re enjoying playtime with other dogs or their human. “Consider your dog’s bared teeth as a goodwill gesture, almost like when humans smile at each other or laugh,” Simmonds says.
- They’re excited. Simmonds shares an example of when a pet parent asks their pup if they want to go for a walk, and the dog smiles in response.
- They’re showing they like to be pet. Simmonds says dogs may smile when being pet simply because this behavior is pleasing and soothing, and they crave attention.
- They’re nervous. “If you look at videos or pictures of most ‘smiling’ dogs, you’ll often see that something in the environment is making them nervous—a new person, a camera in their face, [or] a person doing something strange,” says Mindy Waite, a certified dog behaviorist for Senior Tail Waggers.
- They’ve done something mischievous. Whether your dog has chewed up a pair of shoes or done something else naughty, they may show their teeth in a sheepish grin when you get home to appease you.
Additionally, studies have shown dogs are more expressive when making eye contact with someone, suggesting they are trying to communicate. Your dog might also mimic you when they smile to relate to you better.
How To Smile Back At Dogs
Waite says pet parents can smile at their dog frequently since they’re used to the facial expression and have positive associations with it.
She recommends waiting to smile for a few minutes with dogs you’re just meeting or don’t know well. Waite shares this step-by-step on politely smiling back at dogs, particularly those you’re unfamiliar with.
- Take a seat on a chair.
- Put your hands on your lap or the chair’s arms instead of toward the dog’s face.
- Keep a neutral face, not showing teeth by grinning or smiling.
- Move normally (aka don’t stay stiff).
- Ignore the dog while they sniff you.
Dogs can read our facial expressions, so we should be welcoming but, most importantly, respectful of every dog’s space, whether they’re strangers or our own.