By LisaBeth Weber
Do dogs smile? We’ve all seen the upturned mouths on our four-legged friends; the immense joy a happy dog exudes when we walk through the door, ask if they’re hungry or take them to the dog park. But are we simply projecting our human emotions onto our pups—known as anthropomorphizing—so that we see them as smiling—or are they smiling for real?
Victoria Schade, certified dog trainer and author of the book “Bonding With Your Dog,” says, “Dogs use their bodies to express happiness in many ways, but a true human-style smile isn’t normally one of them.” Schade explains that we’re looking at happy dogs engaged in activities they enjoy, like playing or running, and translating their wide, panting mouths into smiles. She adds, “The canine equivalent of a smile is a bouncy body, a loose tail wag, and a facial expression with soft eyes and a relaxed mouth and ears.”
It’s All About Communication
Kim Brophey, certified canine behavior consultant at Dog Door Behavior Center in Asheville, North Carolina, TEDx speaker and author of “Meet Your Dog,” sees dogs “smiling” as an adaptive facial expression and behavior with a range of evolutionary functions and benefits. Highlighting a communication correlation, she says, “What we view as ‘smiling’ can serve to mediate conflicts, communicate deference and facilitate bonding.” Brophey notes that dogs naturally appear to employ adaptive “smiling” behaviors as a social skill and expression of emotion. She adds, “Though it’s fun to think about dogs as smiling deliberately, the reality is that there are very complex evolutionary forces at work.”
As to why we react the way we do when we see a dog “smiling,” Brophey says it’s a combination of oxytocin and evolution. “Dogs are masters at human behavior observation and manipulation,” she says. “That’s their niche. Their ancestry and experiences have informed them on how to be effectively charming.”
This “smiling” is endorsed by humans when they react, laugh, give treats, pet and clap. Dogs quickly learn that this is a positive reaction to their behavior and will continue to smile because of it.
Brophey understands this on a scientific level, but gleefully admits that she is duped on a daily basis by the dozens of dogs she meets. She does, however, remind herself and others to honor and respect the evolutionary love story between people and dogs. Each and every dog is a complex biological individual with their own emotions, intelligence, experience, personality and opinions.
Dog Body Language
For over 10 years, Schade has been a key animal handler—aka puppy wrangler—for the much beloved Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. “The incredibly nuanced dog body language ‘conversations’ with one another can be as fleeting as a blink or as obvious as a play bow,” says Schade. “When expressing joy or happiness toward one another, they’ll likely use their entire body to convey it. That said, a dog’s happy ‘play face’ might look like our version of a smile.”
There is another angle to the whole smiling dogs question, according to Schade. In the human world, smiles are contagious, so if a person looks at a dog and translates its expression as a smile, it’s likely that the person will smile back. Schade explains that there is also the “submissive grin,” which looks like a smile because the lips are drawn back and the teeth are exposed. The “submissive grin” is what we see in those “dog shaming” videos where the person is scolding a misbehaving dog, and the dog reacts by squinting its eyes and “grinning.”
According to Brophey, there is further scientific causation for the “smiling” reaction we get from dogs: neoteny—the preservation of juvenile behaviors throughout adulthood. Ritualized and emotional greeting behaviors like “smiling,” licking, jumping, tail wagging and vocalization are highly adaptive behaviors in dogs, especially among juveniles, and is significantly influenced by genetic domestication. “The evolutionary process over time has, in part, brought us to our perception of a dog’s facial expression and reaction to something positive as a smile. We then simply ooze oxytocin in the face of a smiling, wagging puppy dog, even if it is just evolutionary forces at work,” explains Brophey.
Although dog behaviorists can explain the scientifically based evolutionary communication and expressions of our pups, the prevailing observation among dog owners might still be, “Of course my dog is smiling!”