What does a dog think when you smile at them? Here’s What to Expect

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Quick — take a picture of your dog smiling before it disappears!

Your four-legged friend looks happy, but whenever you see their little smirk, you may wonder, if dogs can actually smile for real? And if so, why do dogs smile, anyway? It surely makes you happy to see your pet with a wide grin, whether it be at snack time or during a belly scratch, but youre not sure whether youre imagining it or if your dog is actually happy.

Heres the lowdown on dog smiling so you can know once and for all whether your pet is beaming at you with joy or whether their mouth just turns upward.

There are many reasons why you might see a dog smile. Maybe youve just returned home from a long day of work while your dogs been home alone. Maybe your dog hears the shake of their bag of food. Many people think their dog smiles widely when theyre in a car enjoying the feel and smell of the breeze.

But, just like humans, the reasons a dog may smile are subjective. What makes one person — or dog — smile is different from what will make another person or dog happy.

For many years, animal behaviorists largely agreed that animals werent smiling because they were experiencing joy, but instead because of a muscular reflex. Because of this, most people also believed that dogs didnt smile as a way of showing their emotions. That belief, however, has been challenged.

While there are new studies that indicate that some animals might be smiling to express emotion in the way that we perceive smiling, as humans, we need to adjust our mindset slightly when we question whether or not a dogs smile is real.

For example, if youre watching a movie and a character says something funny, youre likely to crack a smile or laugh. Dont expect the same from your pet. Your dog isnt smiling because they find something humorous. Instead, theyre smiling because they are calm and relaxed and, because of that, one could venture that your pet is happy.

Similarly, some dogs will appear to smile if they are showing submission to their human counterparts. This relates to the dog being in a relaxed muscular state.

Do Dogs Smile at Other Dogs?

Sometimes, we smile at other people as a social ritual just to express friendliness. Domesticated dogs will do something similar, but they go beyond facial expressions. Dogs use their entire body posture to communicate a message to other dogs, such as “I’m friendly and just want to play,” or, “This is my owner; please keep your distance,” or, “Take one step closer and I’ll let you have it!”

Just as we can tell when people are giving us a “fake” smile, dogs can tell what messages are being conveyed by reading the body language of another dog.

Dogs don’t really mimic our smiles, but they may be triggered to smile more when they see us smiling. Most dogs really like the happy reaction they get when they please humans and quickly learn how to trigger that happy emotion. For some dogs, that includes smiling.

The phenomenon that causes a dog to smile when we smile at them is similar to “laughter contagion.” Just as one person laughing heartily can trigger another person to start laughing, a happy person that smiles can trigger a happy dog to smile back. Vice versa, a grinning dog can trigger an oxytocin release in humans and a happy response.

It is important to remember, however, that every dog is an individual and responds to varying situations differently; what may cause the smile reaction in one animal may not trigger it in another.

Can dogs smile?It certainly seems like it! Besides the countless smiles you see from your own happy puppy, there are literally thousands of smiling-dog photos on the internet. Yet, to date, scientists don’t know for sure if our pups are intentionally smiling at us the way our fellow humans do. So even though a dog’s little grins can look astonishingly like our own, research shows that humans and dogs produce distinct facial expressions of emotion and that dogs do not, in fact, use their facial muscles in the same way humans do to express those emotions. However, dogs do seem to make isolated expressions in response to specific emotional stimulFor example, when people interpret a smile on a dog’s face, they typically see a couple of different expressions. “One is a soft, relaxed, open-mouth expression that is more likely to be shown when a dog is comfortable, content and otherwise in a low emotional arousal state,” says Christopher Pachel, DVM, a veterinarian and certified animal behavior consultant at the Animal Behavior Clinic in Portland, Oregon.The other is when the lips are pulled back a bit with an open-mouth expression, often exposing a bit more teeth. This isn’t an aggressive display; rather, it’s an appeasement communication. “You might see this expression when a dog is slightly nervous, panting or otherwise using their body-language communication to defuse a situation they may perceive as somewhat uncomfortable, threatening or stressful,” says Dr. Pachel. Both types of “smiley” expressions can have subtle differences depending on the physical structure of the dog, so it’s important not to overinterpret a particular grin—just like it’s important not to project human sadness when it seems like your

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