Monday, April 02, 2018

My Doggie “Smiles,” What Does it Mean?

Written by Vet Assistant, Danielle & Gloria Ku, DVM

In the video below,
his smile is very quick.
Look for it at about the 3 second spot.

My husband and I have never had a dog that smiles”…until now.  Ryker, our Papillon mix, gets very excited and will bare his teeth at us briefly.  Most people he does it to, including a couple of our parents and some of our friends, think it is funny and cute. But some people are more surprised and wonder if its aggressive. I was sure that it was a sign of submission, and then I spoke to Dr. Ku. She reminded me that it depends on the animals body language which got me thinking of our past dog.

Vega, a Shepard mix, had tricked some people into thinking she was happy to see them. A few times, she would look at people and wag her tail excitedly. They would say to me, Shes happy to see me!and I would think, Shes excited to bite you.I knew that Vegas tail wag wasnt because she was happy—she was excited.  Vegas tail would be wagging but her body would remain as still as a statue and her eyes would watch the person intently, unblinking.  If a person got close enough to her when she was showing these signs, she would try to bite them. We worked with a trainer for many years and learned a lot about her body language.

While working at a veterinary hospital, we see a lot of different body languages in dogs (and cats too). Ive seen dogs wagging their tail for different reasons. A happy dog could be wagging its tail and the whole body wiggles as well.  A scared dog could be wagging its tail but also not making eye contact and positioning its body as low to the ground as possible. An aggressive dog could be wagging its tail, standing still and not breaking eye contact with you.  All three dogs are wagging their tail, but it all means something different.

Photo Credit:

Just like tail wagging, a smile can mean different things too.  We asked Dr. Ku to elaborate on why dogs smile.

Photo Credit:
Dr. Ku responded, "There can be many reasons a dog will appear to 'smile' for us.  For dogs, this type of facial expression has less meaning than it does for humans.  Dogs may move their lips in this way to signal aggression (as when showing their teeth and lifting their lips), to get a better whiff of something they are smelling (as in what’s known as the 'vomer response' to increase olfactory sensitivity), and sometimes just to pant or breath more heavily through their mouth.  I have also seen dogs look like they are smiling just before they are about to vomit! 
As Danielle says, a dog’s posture and body language, tail position and activity, as well as facial expression are needed to fully interpret a dog’s emotional state.  And certain breeds are certainly more emotive than others.  We must remember not to attribute meaning from our human expressions too readily on our canine companions, but that’s not to say they don’t communicate to us with their bodies and facial muscles.  And just like us, they have more than one way to communicate and are very individual in how they do so.  That’s the fun part in developing your relationship with your dog.  Soon you come to know what your dog’s smiles mean, and can help others interpret them, until they get to know your dog too!" 😊

Here are some other cat and dog body language charts you can find online:

Click this link to see images full size: