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Why Do Dogs Smile? Dog Smiling Explained

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You and your pup have a special connection—one that’s built on love and trust, and that makes for a happy dog. And if she’s happy, it only makes sense that she would smile, right? But is dog smiling really a thing?

Most dog owners probably have more than one picture of their dog smiling or doing something that appears to be eerily akin to a human smile. Whether it happens when your pet seems to be enjoying something, or it’s totally out of the blue, pet owners who see their dogs “smiling” are probably pretty pleased with it. But can dogs smile, really?

We should probably be asking, “Why do dogs smile?” rather than if they do. “I believe that yes, dogs do smile, but the pictures of pets showing their teeth as a smile, I don’t think those are always a sign of a happy, relaxed pet,” says Stephanie Liff, DVM, medical director of Pure Paws Vet Care of Hell’s Kitchen and Clinton Hill. In fact, if your pet is happy, Dr. Liff says your dog is probably more likely to have his mouth slightly open and to be panting gently. When it comes to dog communication and pet behavior, the action of showing teeth takes on a different meaning than it does for humans. While flashing those pearly whites is a sign of joy for people (mostly!), dog smiling could actually mean the exact opposite in terms of dog behavior. “If dogs are baring their teeth, that’s often a sign of aggression,” said Dr. Liff. “But there are a few dogs that may actually retract the lips back without having aggressive intent.”

So how will you know if your dog is happy? As you may have already found out, it probably doesn’t take much. “I think that most dogs are happy and content most of the time,” says Dr. Liff. Pay attention to other signs of satisfaction in your dog’s behavior—like relaxed body position, relaxed ears and a mouth that’s slightly open and panting, like mentioned above—to understand the times when your pet seems to be happiest, and what’s going on in his surroundings when he is. “Happy dogs also have a calm appearance to their eyes, and they’re usually in a neutral position with their tails either wagging or neutral,” says Dr. Liff. “To me, this is also the equivalent of smiling in a dog.”

Of course if you haven’t noticed your dog smiling before and now you’re dying to see it in real life, some of the old standbys—treats, reuniting with a certain beloved toy, a soothing belly rub or scratch behind the ears—are almost guaranteed to earn you a smile.