What Does Your Dog’s Smile Mean?

The idea of a dog smiling is something we hear often. Companies even have “best smile” contests where you can send in a picture of your dog’s grin to win a prize. But do dogs really smile? If so, does there smile mean the same thing as when we smile?

Submissive Grin

Possibly the most common “grin” from a dog, is the submissive grin, so named because dogs do it when trying to “appease” another dog or person. In this pose, the dog lifts his upper lip up to reveal his front teeth with a closed mouth. Puppies will do this to older dogs, and dogs will do it to us when they are uncomfortable about something or if the person or other dog is showing aggression towards them. This video shows a great grin.  And remember, just like people, not all dogs use the exact same expressions. Each individual dog will have their own idiosyncrasies.

Aggressive Smile

The problem with the “submissive grin” is that it can look very similar to an aggressive “smile” or snarl. Dog’s will also pull their lips back to reveal with front teeth when they are about to bite. Sometimes, the lips go back (different from the vertical lift seen in the submissive grin). BUT, sometimes they will lift the lips up in the same way, making it hard to tell if the dog is appeasing you, warning you of impending aggression, or if the dog himself has not decided which route to take.

“[My] only caution is that without seeing the whole dog, sometimes the smiles can be misinterpreted. It’s good to take the facial expression together in context with the rest of the dog’s body language to be sure it’s a smile and not an aggressive display,” cautions Robin Bennett, CPDT-KA.

A dog showing an aggressive "smile" or snarl
A dog showing an aggressive “smile” or snarl
One example of a submissive grin. Source: Tao Of The Paw
One example of a submissive grin. Source: Tao Of The Paw


Compare the dog with the submissive grin, graciously provided by Tao Of The Paw, with the snarling dog in the second picture. Since both of these smiles look very similar, is important to look at the rest of the dog before decided how to react. Otherwise, you may get bit by a dog that was giving you clear signals to stay away.

Do Dogs Smile Out of Happiness?

Usually when dogs are said to be “smiling” in the anthropological sense, out of happiness, it is when they have ears forward or in the relaxed state for the breed, relaxed eyes, and a big wide open mouth, with tongue hanging out, sometimes panting too. So, is this a happy dog?

“I think there is some happiness since the body language of the dog who is smiling often contains some of the loose, wiggly signals we would see in a happy dog. However, I don’t know that happiness is the only emotion,” says Bennettt.

For example, a dog with an open mouth that looks happy, could in fact be hot and uncomfortable or stressed, neither of which would be considered “happy” by a human.

Next time you are pretty sure your dog is happy look at the whole picture and see if you can tell what she is really trying to say to you. And definitely do that before you approach a dog that maybe warning you to stay away.


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