dog photographer Northamptonshire

Dogs don’t smile

Apr 14, 2022 | Philanthropy, Wellbeing

Disclaimer: I’m a Certified Canine Body Language Specialist, however I am not a professional dog trainer or behaviourist. This post is intended to be informative, but not comprehensive. Please seek advice from a professional if you need more information or support.

Earlier today I saw a thread on Twitter that really struck a nerve. The tweet began “Every now and then I hear discussion about whether dogs smile, at least in the way we humans do.” and proceeded to post a huge number of photos of dogs deemed to be ‘smiling’. The tweet gained a lot of traction, with other users sharing their own ‘smiling’ and ‘laughing’ dog photos. And it made me realise that, while the post was intended to be light-hearted, there is a dangerous amount of misinformation being spread regarding this type of canine behaviour. With a spate of dog attacks on children making headlines recently, I felt compelled to get back on my soapbox and bang my canine body language drum a bit more. Settle in, this might be a long one!

A note on anthropomorphism

Other than being an absolute nightmare to spell and pronounce, anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics or behaviour to a god, animal, or object. This happens all the time with animals, and is a really unhelpful habit that we humans have developed. It’s especially relevant to this situation – humans smile, so when they see an animal making a similar expression, they automatically assume that it means the same thing. We do the same thing when we think an animal looks ‘proud’ or ‘guilty’. But the truth is, animals have a completely different capacity for emotion, and express themselves in completely different ways to humans. 

Can dogs smile?

Yes and no.

Most scientists think a dog’s ‘smile’ comes from a combination of evolution and the fact that dogs have learned to analyse human behaviour to use to their advantage. Since most humans react positively when they see a dog smile (e.g. by smiling back and making approving noises) the dog is rewarded for this behaviour and does it more often. We all know that dogs are renowned people pleasers!

There’s also the concept of ‘laughter contagion’ at play. In the same way that a stranger smiling at you in the supermarket might trigger you to smile back, a happy person that smiles can trigger a happy dog to smile back. 

But just because a dog can form the facial expression that we know as a smile (corners of the mouth turned up, often with teeth exposed), it doesn’t always mean that they’re happy. Smiling is a human expression, an expression we use to convey happiness, pleasure, kindness or amusement. Dogs express happiness in other ways; ‘smiling’ is not one of them. In fact, what we see as a ‘smile’ can often be a sign of stress or discomfort.

Did you know?

A dog’s emotional development stops much earlier than in humans – dogs mature emotionally at the same point as a 2 1/2 year old human child. In fact, dogs never even develop the capacity to feel guilt, shame, pride or contempt. When a dog looks ‘guilty’ for chewing the sofa or peeing on the kitchen floor, they’re much more likely to be expressing fear (in anticipation of being punished). Think about that next time you see a ‘pet-shaming’ video on TikTok.

But who cares? Why does it matter?

I know, I know, I’m such a killjoy. But misinterpreting a dog’s body language has far-reaching implications, regardless of our good intentions. At best, it can spread misinformation and perpetuate dangerous behaviour. At worst, it can get someone bitten or attacked. Dogs are incredibly patient creatures that love to please people – don’t we owe it to them to respect their emotions and learn their language?

staffy dog with stressed mouth smile
a big dog and a small dog sitting in front of a bush looking at the camera
a black labrador running through bracken towards the camera

How can I tell the different between a ‘happy smile’ and an ‘unhappy smile’?

There are two key things to look out for when reading a dog’s body language: tension and context. There are a bunch of other things to watch out for as well, but if you can look out for these two factors then you’ll be well on your way to understanding your dog more effectively. 

Tension

Tension is a super-common theme in canine stress signals. In the same way that humans get tense when they’re stressed or scared, dogs will also tense the muscles throughout their body – from their tail all the way to their tongue.

A stressed ‘smile’ will be visibly tense – the lips and corners of the mouth will be tightened, regardless of whether the dog’s mouth is open or closed. If the dog’s mouth is open, they’ll likely have a ‘spatulate’ tongue (the tongue will curl up at the end due to tension). This is different to a dog that’s hot or worn out, where their tongue will usually hang loosely out of their mouth.

You can also look for tension in the rest of the dog’s face, like a wrinkled/furrowed brow or ears pinned back. A stressed or overstimulated dog will usually show multiple signs of tension throughout their entire body (as well as other stress signals).

Context

It can be difficult to judge a situation based on one single observation (especially when it comes to photos and videos that we see online) – what looks like a stressed dog could actually be a dog that’s just tired and panting after a long walk, or a dog that’s been snapped the split-second they saw a squirrel out of the corner of their eye. That’s why it’s important to keep context in mind when assessing a dog’s behaviour. The behaviour you spot might just be a one-off, or an appropriate reaction to their environment.

We also need to remember that every dog is unique! Some will have ‘quirks’ or behaviours that you come to learn are completely normal for that dog, but might be a sign of stress or discomfort in another. Certain breeds may exhibit behaviours that look like stress but are a symptom of their breeding e.g. Pugs and Frenchies will often appear to have curled up tongues, because of the way they’ve been bred. Always look at the bigger picture.

a black and white border collie in a field looking up at his owner.jpg
a tan coloured frenchie standing on a rock looking at the camera.jpg
a brown staffie with perked up ears and an open mouth with tense tongue.jpg

So now what?

Hopefully you’re still with me (I did tell you to settle in!). If you are, I want you to take a look back at the photos in this post and tell me, which dogs are smiling?

Hopefully you’ve realised by now that that’s a trick question, because none of them are smiling! But you should be able to make a good guess at which ones are happy, and which ones are showing possible signs of stress.

And next time you’re scrolling through social media, maybe think twice about sharing that ‘laughing’ dog story or retweeting that ‘guilty’ pup post, and share something educational instead! Remember, our pets deserve our love and respect, and we owe it to them to educate ourselves and those around us.


Fine art pet portrait artist | Northamptonshire, East Midlands, UK