We've all seen it - YouTube videos (like this one), photos, and even our own pets - those adorable smiling dogs. Sometimes it's a funny grin with the pearly whites showing and sometimes just a closed mouth ear-to-ear smile but many people wonder, what does this kind of body language actually mean? Do dogs really smile because they are happy? Delving into a quick study of doggy psychology and behavior will help us find the answer.
Submissive and Aggressive "Smiles"
The most common kind of "smile" a dog can give you is a submissive grin. Dogs do this as a way to ease tension between themselves and another person or animal. The behavior is common in puppies when they are approached by an adult dog. The behavior can also be seen when dogs are uncomfortable or feel threatened by another dog or human. Who could forget Denver the Guilty Dog, for example - a perfect example of that "I am in big trouble and feel really uncomfortable" grin.
Another similar facial expression is an aggressive snarl. Dogs pull their lips back exposing their teeth when they feel threatened and are about to bite. You can usually tell by the dog's general attitude and posture if their "smile" is actually a warning.
Happy Smiling Dogs?
But the question remains - do dogs every smile out of happiness, like we humans do? Usually, when dogs appear to be "happy smiling" their ears and eyes look relaxed and often a big pink tongue lolls out of a wide open mouth. Does that kind of body language mean a dog is happy?
Unfortunately, there is no concrete answer to that question. Sometimes a "relaxed" looking, panting dog might not be happy at all but instead feel hot and stressed. However, we'd be willing to bet that when that big ol' loose-looking smile is accompanied by a wagging tail and other affectionate body language, you really do have one happy, smiling pup!