Have you ever tried to snap a cute picture of your dog, asked them to smile for the camera and say ‘cheeeese!’? Well, you’re not alone. Seeing our dog look happy with that wide mouthed grin and tongue flopping out is enough to make us humans feel happy too. But is this expression actually a canine smile?
Understanding canine behaviour is what researchers have been trying to do for centuries now, and the jury is still out on whether that toothy grin we see during dinner time, walkies or tummy tickles is an actual smile or just some other expression of happiness and contentment.
Let’s explore the theories and research about our happy hounds and their adorable facial expressions.
CAN DOGS SMILE?
It was once largely believed by behaviourists that dogs didn’t smile, and their facial expressions didn’t give us much of an indication into what emotions our pooches were feeling.
Further research and thoughts have argued this initial theory and it’s now believed that our dogs do actually express something of a ‘smile’. However, we do need to change our perspective on this smile, our dogs don’t smile in the human sense of the word.
For example, we crack a smile or even laugh when we hear a funny joke, but our four-legged friends don’t smile when they find something amusing. A canine smile usually occurs when the dog is content, relaxed and happy, usually in situations such as being on an exciting, fun walk or when you’re stroking their belly.
So, you can infer from this that your dog does flash you a ‘smile’ in situations where they’re feeling happy, much like humans, but it’s an involuntary muscular reflex in dogs as an expression of contentment, rather than your dog knowingly trying to smile at you.
This happy face does resemble the human version of a smile, but it happens when their mouth is relaxed, which will obviously occur in situations where they’re feeling happy and at ease.
WHAT IS A DOG SMILE?
The dog ‘smile’ is when your dog’s mouth is relaxed and open, with no signs of tension or forcefulness to get it like this. Expect to see your dog’s long, floppy tongue hanging down, as they’ll probably be panting too. The corners of the mouth will be upturned, and your dog might reveal a set of pearly whites, just like our human smiles! Dogs can sometimes seem eerily humanlike.
There’s also another second type of ‘smile’, in which the lips are pushed back to display both rows of teeth. It’ll only last a split second and can be wrongly perceived as hostility, as all the teeth are on show, but it’s actually referred to as a ‘submissive smile’, showing the other person or pooch that they respect them. You might notice your dog 'smiling' when you get home from work, when you're giving them a belly tickle or when it's time for walkies.
STUDYING DOGGY FACIAL EXPRESSIONS
Dogs have evolved over the years to live alongside humans, as both companions and workers. They look to us for food, water, shelter and most of all, care and compassion, which we happily provide with no questions asked.
Our dogs know that they need human care, so they’ve evolved in a way to appease us by being super charming and cute. They mirror our behaviours and emotions, which is why it might appear like they’re showing us emotions through their faces.
When our dogs ‘smile’ we probably react in a positive way, reinforcing the behaviour with praise. They know exactly how to please us and give them the care and compassion they require. So, do our dogs use their facial expressions to communicate with us for their own gain?
A study was conducted between dogs and wolves, to observe how they’d act in response to the task of opening a container filled with food. It seemed that the wolves just left after realising they couldn’t open it, whereas the dogs would look back at their humans with those adorable puppy eyes.
This implies that dogs know a cute gaze is a way of communicating with a human and that by gazing in this way the human will help them out.
It’s theorised that both the oxytocin levels (the happiness and bonding hormone) of both humans and hounds rise when they make eye contact, showing the bond between human and canine.
Dogs know how to communicate with us and there’s enough reason to believe that they expertly utilise their cute facial expressions, their ‘smiles’ and puppy dog eyes to charm us and subsequently get us to do what they want us to do. It turns out that our dogs are master manipulators!
THE SAMOYED SMILE
One dog breed that is always smiling is the Samoyed. Affectionately dubbed as having a ‘Sammie smile’, this dog breed is cheerful, personable and always full of life, both in personality and appearance.
Their mouth is constantly turned upwards into a wide mouthed ‘smile’, but this is actually an evolutionary adaptation that serves a remarkable purpose.
Samoyeds are bred to be sled dogs in cool, harsh climates, so the upturned corners of the mouth are there to inhibit the dog from drooling. While drooling might not be a problem for a normal dog living in a warm house snoozing on the sofa all day, drooling is a real problem in cold weather.
Drool quickly turns to icicles, which would be severely uncomfortable and dangerous to be hanging from the Sammie’s mouth all day long, so their constant smiley expression has evolved over time to prevent that.
IF IT’S NOT A PROPER SMILE, HOW DO WE KNOW THEY'RE HAPPY?
Instead of a smile, look for your dog wiggling and bouncing their whole body, their tail possibly wagging loosely. Their eyes, ears and mouth should all be relaxed and soft.
CAN DOGS LAUGH?
Similar to dogs smiling, it’s up for debate whether or not dogs laugh, but the general consensus is that they can’t. However, research conducted into the vocalisations from dogs during play found that there were 4 sounds that dogs commonly made during playtime.
These were barks, play growls/grumbles, play whines and then a forced, breathy pant which somewhat resembles the sound of a laugh. Obviously they’re not laughing because they find something funny like people do, but you can infer that they’re having fun if you hear this noise!
You’ll also notice typical play signals here too, pawing, jumping and the classic bow invitation, where their front legs are stretched in front and their bum and tail are pointed right up in the air.
Realistically, it doesn’t matter whether our dogs are actually smiling at us or not, because we can infer that the relaxed facial expression they make means that they’re happy.
If they’re making that facial expression, just be sure to snap a photo of it because it looks absolutely adorable!