Do Dogs Smile?

Corgi smiling

Do dogs smile? You already know that your dog likes spending time with you, so why wouldn’t your dog’s smile be genuine? If you sometimes catch yourself marvelling at how human your dog can seem, then you may have caught your dog smiling at you before.

Dogs often mirror the behaviours they see in their humans, and that spills over into sharing some of the same emotions that humans feel and exhibiting similar facial expressions, such as smiling. But is your dog’s smile a true smile, or is that just wishful thinking on your part?

Do Dogs Smile?

If social media is to be believed, then dogs definitely smile. Scroll through your feed on any given social media site and you're likely to see grinning canines popping up from every corner of the net. In reality, though, dogs don’t actually smile — at least, not in the same sense that you do. 

A dog can appear to smile by opening the mouth and pulling back the lips, allowing the tongue to lap over the teeth. Because these actions happen more often when the dog appears to be happy and relaxed, it’s not a big leap for humans to believe the dog is smiling at us. This is especially true when the dog seems to smile in response to our own smiles. 

But isn’t a facial reaction that occurs during happiness or relaxation the very definition of a smile? And why do dogs smile—what triggers dogs to smile?

Just a glimpse of you entering the room is enough to put a smile on your dog’s face as they come bounding toward you. They smile for belly rubs, for games of catch, for jogs through the park. When a dog has a smooth forehead and a wide-open mouth with relaxed ears and loose, calm body language, there’s little reason to doubt that the dog is in a great mood, so the look on their face may as well count as a smile. After all, these are clear indicators that your dog is happy, and the dog is communicating that happiness to you with a smile.

Do Dogs Laugh?

Most animal behaviourists agree that dogs cannot laugh in the same sense that people laugh. However, dogs can make sounds that sound a lot like laughter, and these sounds tend to come out when the dog is playing. The sound that dog owners love to believe is laughter is a play-pant (not to be confused with true panting) sound that dogs emit as a type of invitation — they want you to play with them and they also want other dogs to come and play. The sound comes across as a “hhuh hhah” vocalization. The dog often couples the sound of play-panting with body language that says “come play,” including teasing jumps and reaching paws.

Play-pant “laughter” among dogs has been shown to make puppies active when they listened to recordings of it. When played to shelter dogs, these same noises had a calming effect, suggesting that those sounds do represent laughter as far as other dogs are concerned.

Tail Wagging: Another Happiness Indicator

Researchers cannot definitively prove or disprove that dogs actually smile, but they do believe that dogs exhibit happiness in other ways — and their tails may serve as a sort of happiness meter. Experts say that when dogs wag their tails, they are usually happy, but that is not always the case. Wagging the tail can also be an indicator of excitement or nervousness in the dog. Dogs may also use tail wagging as a means of appeasing conflict.

Tail wagging indicates happiness when the dog’s tail wags at a moderate speed. The dog is showing you affection. If it wags side to side rapidly, then the dog is cueing you into their excitement. You may notice this type of wagging when you are filling your dog's bowl with his favourite food. Dogs who feel insecure about something or who are having a difficult time understanding a command may lower their heads and slowly wag their tails. Depending upon the breed, a tail that is held high or curved over the dog’s back and that wags in short, quick spurts may be indicating the need for space. Either way, in addition to your dog's 1,000-watt smile, tail wagging is another way to gauge your dog's emotions.

Bottom Line

Do dogs smile? The answer may be as clear as mud. But if you’ve seen your pooch beaming a pearly white smile at you before, then you no doubt took it as a sign of love and affection from your canine companion — and there's a good chance you were right to do so.

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