Were there times where your pooch surprises you with a big goofy grin? No doubt it had led you to wonder if dogs smile. Scientific studies now show a clue what this dog body language is trying to tell you.
There is more to it than a smile
According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), if a pooch is content, then he will have a relaxed body language. It is usually characterised by relaxed facial muscles that would make his mouth open and the corners of his mouth will turn upwards. And there you have it—a dog’s smile.
However, body language is harder to decipher on animals than it is on humans. A misinterpretation of a dog’s body language can end up in a disaster, and decoding dog behaviour can prove to be a tricky one. According K.C. Theisen, Humane Society of the United States director of pet care, the characteristics of a dog’s smile do not necessarily mean the way people think of a smile.
She cautions not to be too assured that a dog’s smile immediately equates to happiness or relaxation. “Learning what dog’s body language can tell you is super important since a dog ‘smiling’ may or may not be approachable and friendly,” she adds.
On the other hand, recently, there has been a growing field dedicated to animal happiness studies or “positive emotions” as scientist calls it. Although happiness is difficult to define, experts suggest that if an animal has a repetitive experience, it can lead to happiness. So, if your pooch is used to enjoying your company whilst out on a walk, you must carefully observe because he might flash you a smile!
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Working Their Charms
Another way to translate a dog smiling is that it is an adapted behaviour that pooches got from people after years of social interaction with us. Recent studies show that dogs have the ability to distinguish a person’s smiling face not only from their owners but on some strangers as well.
Recognising human facial expression does not appear to be an innate ability in dogs. Instead, it was learned by the dogs through associating a smile with a reward, such as giving treats or awarding them with belly rubs and cuddles.
It appears that dogs’ past experiences and ancestry have taught them how to charm people just by using their smile. Dogs have learned this adaptive behaviour by observing their pet owners’ reactions when they laugh or give treats. They understand that it is a result of positive feedback relating to their good behaviour.
According to Kim Brophey, a canine behaviour consultant, we typically see smiling as a peacemaker and deflector of conflicts and it also facilitates bonding. Pooches commonly utilise adaptive smiling behaviours as a social skill and expression of emotion.
Another plausible scientific explanation behind smiling dogs is neoteny. It is the preservation of juvenile behaviours throughout adulthood. Dogs, especially juvenile ones, are prone to have highly adaptive behaviours relating to ritualised and emotional greeting behaviours such as jumping, vocalisation, licking, and tail wagging. This adaptive behaviour is highly influenced by genetic domestication.
Submissive smiling is a smile that pooches use on pooches and humans alike to let them know that they are not interested in fighting. It is their one way of saying that they just want to be one of your furry friends and definitely not a threat, which is why it has also earned another term, which is appeasement grin.
A submissive smile is commonly characterised by a low hanging tail, eyes glancing to the side, laid-back ears, and a hoisted paw. The pooch will also exhibit a relaxed body posture as he does it. If you ever see your dog do this and you want to take a photo, you might want to do it as fast as possible as it can be a fast-paced and exaggerated movement.
Submissive smiling is a rare hardwired behaviour that dates back to the canine’s previous wild and ancestors. Canines were believed to descend from a single species of wolves that inhabited Northern Europe more than ten thousand years ago.
Wolves are known to have a strong and secure structure with an evident hierarchy because they are pack animals. In order to ensure their survival, these canines classified themselves as either dominant or submissive and rely on various ranges of behaviours and cues in order to convey it.
Their Own Version of a Smile
There can be various reasons as to why dogs smile; however, it might not be an embodiment of their happiness. Victoria Schade, an author of a book titled Bonding with Your Dog and a certified dog trainer, offers a different yet positive point of view. She shares that you can translate pooches’ other body language and behaviour as their way of smiling. So when your pooch excitedly runs towards you as it welcomes you back home or its loose tail wags as you gently rub their tummy, maybe it is their way of showing you their smiles of happiness.