Have you ever looked down at your dog and found that they appear to be beaming up at you? We’ve got to admit, it looks so cute when dogs smile, and we found ourselves wondering – are they really smiling? Or are we just projecting our own emotions onto our pets?
So, what’s the science behind a dog’s smile? Are they expressing emotion – or is it something else?
Putting a Spotlight on the Science Behind a Dog’s Smile
Generally, scientists believe that canine smiles are a combination of evolution, and their knack for analysing human behaviours, and canine behaviourists agree that a dog smiling isn’t a grin in the human sense of emotional expression, but it is a gesture made as part of their body language.
Unlike people, dogs tend to use their entire body posture to express a message – such as when they’re on alert, and they go still and stiff from head to tail. Because dogs learn from the humans around them, they will (mostly) associate a smile with happiness – and many of them will have learned that happy owners are more often freer with the treats, fuss, and praise, all things that dogs love to have.
So, when they see a person smiling, they mimic this happy behaviour, in order to gain rewards.
Some dogs appear to smile when they’re angry, but this isn’t the case and shouldn’t be confused as a positive reaction. What appears to be a smile, is the dog baring their teeth in response to a situational stimulus – this could be fear, pain (real or anticipated), overstimulation, resource guarding, or being territorial.
Some breeds of dog are more prone to baring their teeth than others – such as Chihuahuas, who are notoriously well-known for being over-protective for anything and everything that belongs to them (or they believe belongs to them).
How Can You Tell if Your Dog’s Expression is a Smile or a Snarl?
It’s important to learn your dog’s body language and be able to determine if your dog is ‘smiling’ as a positive reaction to their surroundings or people, or if they’re baring their teeth and issuing a clear warning that they’re about to take matters into their own paws.
You’ll need to consider the situation that you’re in, your surroundings, the people around you (if any), and other environmental or stimulus that could be causing a reaction.
For example, if your normally playful pup is surrounded by their favourite dog toys, and is presenting a relaxed body, possibly a wagging tail, and appears to be smiling – then it’s most likely a positive reaction, they’re connecting with the happy mood, and are reflecting that back to you.
But, let’s say another dog is in the room, and is approaching their toys – and your dog’s posture goes stiff, their ears go back, and they curl their lip into an angry smile, this is not a good situation – this is a warning that they’re not happy (in this example, because their possessions and territory are being encroached upon), and they may even start growling or whining (although not all dogs react tonally).
As we mentioned, your dog uses body language to express themselves, and identifying what is their usual state, how they look and behave when they’re relaxed, and how they hold themselves or behave when they’re stressed, is super important – deescalating situations before they can devolve into incidents is far preferable than the alternative!
Some of the key differences to look for, when determining smile or snarl include:
- Licking lips
- Relaxed posture
- Tail wagging at happy or normal speeds
- Ears in normal or happy positions
- Growling / Whining / Snarling
- Rigid posture
- Stiff ‘on-point’ or rapidly moving tail
- Ears either right forward (focused) or right back (unhappy)
Can You Train Dog to Smile on Command?
Not all dogs enjoy or respond well to being trained (just try getting your average dachshund to do anything it doesn’t want to!), but for those that do enjoy learning, with a bit of time, patience, and the right tools for the job, you can teach your dog to smile on demand!
Like with many training methods, dogs tend to respond well to praise, positive reinforcement, and of course – being rewarded, either with snacks or energetic playtime with your their favourite tug toy.
Trainers have found that there is no ‘standard’ length of time for dogs to pick up tricks and commands, a lot of it will depend on the individual personality of the dog (dogs that are eager to please may learn faster than ones who are suspicious of everything or extremely stubborn). This means, don’t be disappointed if your dog isn’t one of the few that learn new tricks in 10 minutes, and takes their own time to learn – if you keep at it, your patience will be rewarded with (at the very least) time well spent with your pup!
Breed can also have an impact on how fast and well your dog will learn, some of the most trainable breeds include: Miniature Schnauzers, German Shepherds, Poodles, Border Collies, Labradors, Papillons, and Boxers – where conversely, some of the hardest to train breeds include: Huskies, Beagles, Dachshunds, Chihuahuas, and some Terriers.
But just because a breed is ‘normally’ hard to train, doesn’t necessarily mean that your dog won’t respond – but it’s good to be aware that they may need an extra bit of attention!
How to Teach Your Dog to Smile
The key part of this training involves repetition, patience, and consistency. Before you start, you need to work out what command you want to use to get your dog to respond, this isn’t just about the word (which will most likely be ‘smile!’ or some variation thereof), but also tone of voice – remember, your dog might have some level of understanding of the words you’re saying, but they’re primarily responding to the sound and shape of the word, as well as the tone (which is why you might find calling their name to get them to come in, only works when you reach a certain pitch!) so make sure you’re training them for a command that you can easily remember, and at a tone you’re comfortable repeating.
Reward training is one of the most suitable methods to help your dog learn this trick – but you don’t want to choose a reward that could lead to health problems; so, no high-sugar (gravy) snacks or fatty snacks, we recommend bite-sized mini biscuits that are designed to be given a few at a time!
There are three general training processes. The first is pretty simple once you’re ready to get started. Gently touch your dog’s whiskers or cheek to get their attention and say your command word – if they immediately show their teeth (smile), give them a reward – repeat a few more times, then continue to repeat the motion until they recognise the command word without you touching their face.
This method is not suitable for dogs who don’t like their faces being touched, have tooth problems, or any lumps / cuts on their face – the point is to be positive, and if your dog already has a negative reaction to their face being touched, you’re going to be reinforcing their discomfort.
The second method involves using a dog training clicker tool, and this works best if your dog is already familiar with the clicker (if they’re not, you’ll need to start there – and get them associating the sound of the clicker with a command from you, and a treat to follow).
Once they are trained to respond to the clicker, then you can start teaching them the command to smile – if they’re struggling to understand what you want, and they don’t have objections to their face being touched, you can combine this method with the whisker touching.
The third method is one that works well with training your dog to accept a canine toothbrush as well. You make sure they’re calm and happy first (if your dog is baring their teeth for negative reasons – don’t use this tactic, as it reinforces the negative). Then, you can start teaching them to respond to, “Show me your teeth,” or a similar command phrase.
Once you’ve said the command, gently use your fingers to raise their lips (which is when you can also use the toothbrush) – after you’ve done this, give them their reward.
All three methods require repetition (we know we’ve said this already – repetition you see!) and patience, and really understanding your dog’s body language and willingness to accept training on any given day.
Teaching your dog tricks can be fun and build a firm bond between you both – but it’s also a fantastic way to encourage obedience, and get them responding to your commands, which can really help in stressful or unexpected situations.
What new trick will you teach your dog today? We hope you both have fun learning together!