Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
Do Dogs Really Smile?
There are countless owners who claim their dogs smile, but is there any truth to this? The picture above seems to suggest that dogs can smile and in a funny way, too. But why do dogs smile and what makes them open their mouths and show their teeth in such an expressive way?
The truth is (and sorry to burst your bubble) that saying a dog smiles is ultimately a form of anthropomorphism. Just because a dog shows their teeth and appears to grin does not necessarily mean it is smiling. It is similar to how a dog who is giving a paw is not really shaking hands. Humans and dogs are different species, and as such, engage in different behaviors and have different motivations.
A Dog "Smile" Is Not the Same as a Human Smile
While it may be tempting to think that Rover opens his mouth to smile, we must face the truth and accept the fact that dogs are dogs and humans are humans. If your dog gives you his paw, he is doing so because it is likely he has received some form of reinforcement. The reinforcement can be food, praise, or just a friendly pat. A dog giving a paw, therefore, is obviously not thinking about adhering to human etiquette. They have their own rewarding reasons, courtesy of operant conditioning!
But why would a dog smile? Humans smile to denote positive emotions such as pleasure, joy, and happiness; the smile itself appears to be part of universal language. Do dogs smile for similar reasons? It does not appear as such. Dogs would otherwise be seen smiling all the time as they are quite joyful animals by nature! You would, therefore, expect a smile when your dog does something right, when you give him his favorite treat, and when he gets to greet his friends at the dog park. You would also expect a mischievous smile when he puts his nose in the most inappropriate places! Instead, smiles in dogs seem to appear quite out of context from a closer observation.
However, interestingly, it appears that human smiles and dog smiles may ultimately stem for the same underlying reason. The ultimate reason for the smile may have evolved for humans, but they have appeared to remain the same for dogs!
So Why Do Dogs Smile?
Are you wondering why Rover is smiling? Let's skip canines for a minute and look at human smiling first. Several biologists seem to agree that the origin of the smile stems from fear. Indeed, primatologist Signe Preuschoft believes that the smile traces back to over 30 million years ago and back in time it was used as a "fear grin" by our closest biological relatives. This behavior was often observed in monkeys and apes in the context of demonstrating to predators that they were harmless and meant no threat. A silent, bare teeth display was often observed in tense situations as a pacifying signal, often demonstrated towards a superior partner. In other primate species, the behavior was often employed by an inferior animal for the purpose of demonstrating acceptance of the subordinate role. More about this can be read in the book Origins of Semiosis: Sign Evolution in Nature and Culture by Winfried Nöth.
Frank McAndrew, a professor of psychology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, after doing extensive research on facial expressions, claims that baring teeth is not always a threat. While lips curled back and teeth kept apart denote antagonistic intentions, the exposure of teeth kept together always signals submission in the world of primates and the human smile may have evolved from that.
Our smiles, therefore, may have originated for the purpose of portraying submission, lack of threat, and harmlessness. This fear grin appears to be the ancestor of the smile and, consequently, it appears to have evolved into a more sophisticated form that encompasses a variety of emotional states.
While dogs appear to be smiling, it is erroneous when it comes to semantics to call the teeth display a smile. Because this grin is submissive in nature, a dog trainer well versed in dog body language or a behavior specialist will refer to this teeth display as a submissive grin. As in primates, this submissive grin needs not to be confused with a snarl. In this case, the dog lifts the lips to show the fangs and the accompanying body language is hostile. There are several stories of dog owners calling a trainer or dog behaviorist with concern about a submissive grin.
Snarl Versus Submissive Grin
There are several stories of dog owners calling a trainer or dog behaviorist concerned about a submissive grin. In the book How to Speak Dog, Stanley Coren talks about a reputable Irish Setter breeder receiving a distressed phone call from a client which had purchased one of her pups and was displaying aggression. The new owner explained that the dog was leaping repeatedly and snarling at guests and other dogs. A trainer was called to asses the dog, but the trainer reported the dog was too out of control to handle, so euthanasia was recommended.
Because the owner did not feel like doing this, the puppy was planned to be returned to the breeder. The breeder then decided to consult with Stanley Coren for his opinion and help for the day she was to be delivered. Once off the truck, Stanley looked into the crate and all he heard was a whimper. The dog was then let out and soon he leaped up and repeatedly showed every tooth he had in his large mouth. Stanley began to laugh as he realized this was a submissive, pacifying grin. Instead of being a sign of "back off or I'll bite," it was a simply a sign suggesting "I'm not a threat."
Dog Trained to Smile on Cue
But My Dog Really Smiles! It's a Trick I Taught Her!
Personally, I have never seen my dogs smile. Yet, I have a feeling that when they're panting happily with their mouths open and their eyes are bright, they are feeling some joyful emotion. In the last picture below, my two Rotties and foster dog seem to be smiling with their eyes. This was after a playful session. However, some people will claim their dogs do actually smile with their mouths; indeed, ask them to ask their dog to smile and their dogs will give a wide smile on command. The smile looks genuine; how can that be?
In these cases, the dog owners have trained their dogs to smile on cue. How did they do that? Through a training method known as capturing. In capturing, you are basically rewarding behaviors that occur naturally. Because dogs tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded, the act of smiling can then be put on cue. In these cases, the smile starts really looking genuine because the dog is gladly doing it in exchange for a reward!
© 2012 Adrienne Farricelli
Norma Lawrence from California on August 01, 2016:
Great article. Learned a lot from it. I attempt to write articles about pets. I have a Silky terrier mix that looks like she is smiling when she is very happy. Thanks for great share.
Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on June 21, 2015:
The smiling dogs look adorable even if they are not really smiling. You explained something to me. I have the fear grin. I smile and laugh when I am afraid. I can not force my mouth to stop it. I got in so much trouble as a kid in school because the teachers who was scolding me thought I was laughing at her. In humans, I believe it is called inappropriate affect. Voted up ++
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 22, 2014:
Yes, but interestingly there are also non-friendly tail wags. My article on tail communication has a video of a non-friendly tail wag. https://discover.hubpages.com/animals/How-Dogs-Com...
Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on August 22, 2014:
Oftentimes dogs look like their smiling, but I was told that when their happy, their tails wag. Either way, I love my three dogs and enjoy it when they're happy.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on November 14, 2013:
Thanks Dorsi, sounds like a wonderful gal! Must be a pleasure to watch her smile, thanks for stopping by!
Dorsi Diaz from The San Francisco Bay Area on November 14, 2013:
Wonderful and informative hub about smiles! My new dog (she is about 1 1/2 now) smiles obsessively, and she is very submissive so this makes a lot of sense. She is a border collie and just wants to please everyone!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 23, 2013:
Au fait, sounds like you had a very special dog! I am sorry you developed an allergy, I am afraid I may have it a bit too as some nights I feel like I cannot breath and my doctor tested me and I resulted slightly allergic. Thanks for stopping by!
C E Clark from North Texas on October 23, 2013:
Growing up on a farm, our dog was an outside dog. Whenever we all got into the car and went somewhere, our dog would be all squirmy, tail wagging happy when we got back home and he would talk to us and 'smile' with happiness that we were back. He behaved similarly when we first went out the door in the morning after not seeing any of us through the night.
There was never any confusion between his happy 'smiles' and when he was threatening something. If his snarl didn't give it away, the look of his eyes certainly made it clear, but then I had lots of time to analyze his behavior. I haven't had a dog in years because I am allergic to them and develop asthma within minutes of being around them.
You have a lot of really interesting articles on dogs. I have a co-worker who is dog crazy (she has only 5 right now, but has had more all at once previously) and I am going to let her know about all your articles.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on October 16, 2013:
Millionaire, my dogs as well don't smile in the real sense of the word, but at times when they'e panting with their mouths open and their eyes are full of joy, I am sure they are smiling "internally.".
Shasta Matova from USA on October 16, 2013:
Zeus shows excitement and happiness in many ways, but like other dogs, he doesn't smile. It does look like fun though, so maybe I will train him to do so.
On the other hand, it makes me think of all the photos we have nowadays that we ask people to smile. Maybe it is to show that they are happy, but now I am thinking maybe in the past, they didn't smile, because they wanted to look hardworking and not submissive!
Bala from India on June 24, 2013:
Thank you Alex! Amazing stuff your Hub is!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 24, 2013:
Yes, many people have been putting smiling on cue! just say "smile" followed by the hand signal and then praise and reward it,, over and over. At one point the word "smile" should be enough and you wont' need to use the hand signal, good luck!
Bala from India on June 23, 2013:
My dog smiles alex! She puts up a wide grin when brother shows hand with is fingers all curved forward like a claw. She does this only when my brother get his hand really to her face. I feel that she does want him doing that and that's why she grins at him...
What do you think? Can I train her to smile on my command.?
WillStarr from Phoenix, Arizona on August 18, 2012:
My yellow lab was an opportunistic thief, and when she got caught, she would slink off wearing a submissive grin. She also used it when greeting newcomers, and they either thought she was about to bite or that she was smiling. She was just being submissive,
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2012:
Your welcome! My dogs "smile too'" but with their eyes and open mouth, I am going to post a picture soon.
gloshei on July 11, 2012:
Ha ha if only Jinnie smiled I would be over the moon, there is a sparkle in her eyes when she's happy as with all dogs, so I guess it's her way of smiling.
Good hub and brought a smile to my face Grrrrr. Thanks
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2012:
You are welcome Thelma. You Angus sounds like a silly boy, gotta love those smiles!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2012:
Thank you purnimamoh, I loved those pictures and thought they were funny. They sure bring a 'smile" to my day!
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 11, 2012:
Thanks for stopping by Dzymslizzy. I too noticed that the 'smiling' on cue does not look that natural as an authentic submissive grin, just as in people it looks like forced "smiles" lose spontaneity! This was my anthropomorphic assessment, lol! Take care!
Thelma Alberts from Germany and Philippines on July 11, 2012:
Very interesting and informative hub. The photos are great. Angus, my dog smiles. He smiles at me when we are playing and when I tickle him, he has a wide smile. He loves to be tickled by me. Thanks for sharing.
purnimamoh1982 on July 10, 2012:
Interesting hub. My dog does similar things. The photographs make your hub so interesting. Voted up and followed
Liz Elias from Oakley, CA on July 10, 2012:
HA! That first photo is too cute! That dog actually does appear to be "smiling." Whereas in the video of the dog "smiling" on cue, the display is actually more toward the open-toothed, lip-curled snarl expression...perhaps pooch is none too happy with this game....only doing it for the treats, after all...and snarling at himself in self-loathing. (right--dog psych 101--there's your anthropomorphic assessment for ya!) LOL ;-)
Interesting...I believe I'd read before, about the 'fear grin' concept and its evolution. Thanks for the refresher course.
I didn't vote in your poll, as we no longer have a dog, and when I did, I taught other kinds of tricks...
Voted up, interesting and useful.
This Is Why Dogs Smile
There is much more to this canine quirk than you could've imagined.
One of the things that makes dogs so special is the myriad ways in which they manage to communicate with you. There's the way they stare at you when you're eating dinner, the speedily wagging tail when you come home after a long day, and the goofy grin they give you when that belly rub truly hits the spot. But why dogs smile actually has more meaning than you might think.
According to the experts at the ASPCA, a dog's smile can be characterized as a display of the front teeth, normally paired with a lowered head, wagging tail, flattened ears, a "soft body posture," or squinty eyes.
While a dog's smile could indicate that they feel happy around you, according to the experts, in most cases, it actually means that they are showing their submission to you. In fact, according to doghealth.com, a dog's smile is merely a gesture of appeasement or nervousness as they attempt to tell you that they like you enough to give you full control over their well-being. In other words, they are indicating, through that smile, that they will not challenge your authority because they like and trust you.
Aside from communicating a sense of fulfillment, a dog can also learn to smile from you, a phenomenon called laughter contagion. In most cases (whether or not you take notice), according to Purina, your canine pal will often reciprocate your own smile at the moment, grinning back at you to communicate the fact that they consider you a companion.
However, be careful: a showing of teeth could also be a sign of aggression, especially when paired with an erect body and growl. In order to save face (literally), be sure to study your dog's body language before going in for that belly rub.
If you're still wondering how to tell whether or not your pup is truly happy, key clues about their contentment will nearly always lie within their posture and body language. Normally, when a dog is happy, their posture remains relaxed—meaning their eyebrows don't arch with anxiety and they blink often. Your canine friend might even trust you enough to expose their belly or lean into you when you pet them.
At the end of the day, it's important to remember that a dog's smile doesn't usually mean that he or she is happy or content—it's just an attempt to communicate that they approve and respect your authority over them. So, be happy—your dog understands more about your complex relationship than you ever imagined. And for more on owner-dog communication, check out 19 Things Your Dog Is Trying to Tell You.
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I first met in person with Mary E. in the summer of 2007. I had arranged with her husband of fifteen years, Terence, to see her for an interview. Mary had initially agreed, since I was not a newsman but rather an amateur writer gathering information for a few early college assignments and, if all went according to plan, some pieces of fiction. We scheduled the interview for a particular weekend when I was in Chicago on unrelated business, but at the last moment Mary changed her mind and locked herself in the couple's bedroom, refusing to meet with me. For half an hour I sat with Terence as we camped outside the bedroom door, I listening and taking notes while he attempted fruitlessly to calm his wife.
The things Mary said made little sense but fit with the pattern I was expecting: though I could not see her, I could tell from her voice that she was crying, and more often than not her objections to speaking with me centered around an incoherent diatribe on her dreams — her nightmares. Terence apologized profusely when we ceased the exercise, and I did my best to take it in stride recall that I wasn't a reporter in search of a story, but merely a curious young man in search of information. Besides, I thought at the time, I could perhaps find another, similar case if I put my mind and resources to it.
Mary E. was the sysop for a small Chicago-based Bulletin Board System in 1992 when she first encountered smile.jpg and her life changed forever. She and Terence had been married for only five months. Mary was one of an estimated 400 people who saw the image when it was posted as a hyperlink on the BBS, though she is the only one who has spoken openly about the experience. The rest have remained anonymous, or are perhaps dead.
In 2005, when I was only in tenth grade, smile.jpg was first brought to my attention by my burgeoning interest in web-based phenomena Mary was the most often cited victim of what is sometimes referred to as "Smile.dog", the being smile.jpg is reputed to display. What caught my interest (other than the obvious macabre elements of the cyber-legend and my proclivity toward such things) was the sheer lack of information, usually to the point that people don't believe it even exists other than as a rumor or hoax.
It is unique because, though the entire phenomenon centers on a picture file, that file is nowhere to be found on the internet certainly many photomanipulated simulacra litter the web, showing up with the most frequency on sites such as the imageboard 4chan, particularly the /x/-focused paranormal subboard. It is suspected these are fakes because they do not have the effect the true smile.jpg is believed to have, namely sudden onset temporal lobe epilepsy and acute anxiety.
This purported reaction in the viewer is one of the reasons the phantom-like smile.jpg is regarded with such disdain, since it is patently absurd, though depending on whom you ask the reluctance to acknowledge smile.jpg's existence might be just as much out of fear as it is out of disbelief.
Neither smile.jpg nor Smile.dog is mentioned anywhere on Wikipedia, though the website features articles on such other, perhaps more scandalous shocksites as ****** (hello.jpg) or 2girls1cup any attempt to create a page pertaining to smile.jpg is summarily deleted by any of the encyclopedia's many admins.
Encounters with smile.jpg are the stuff of internet legend. Mary E.'s story is not unique there are unverified rumors of smile.jpg showing up in the early days of Usenet and even one persistent tale that in 2002 a hacker flooded the forums of humor and satire website Something Awful with a deluge of Smile.dog pictures, rendering almost half the forum's users at the time epileptic.
It is also said that in the mid-to-late 90s that smile.jpg circulated on usenet and as an attachment of a chain email with the subject line "SMILE!! GOD LOVES YOU!" Yet despite the huge exposure these stunts would generate, there are very few people who admit to having experienced any of them and no trace of the file or any link has ever been discovered.
Those who claim to have seen smile.jpg often weakly joke that they were far too busy to save a copy of the picture to their hard drive. However, all alleged victims offer the same description of the photo: A dog-like creature (usually described as appearing similar to a Siberian husky), illuminated by the flash of the camera, sits in a dim room, the only background detail that is visible being a human hand extending from the darkness near the left side of the frame. The hand is empty, but is usually described as "beckoning". Of course, most attention is given to the dog (or dog-creature, as some victims are more certain than others about what they claim to have seen). The muzzle of the beast is reputedly split in a wide grin, revealing two rows of very white, very straight, very sharp, very human-looking teeth.
This is, of course, not a description given immediately after viewing the picture, but rather a recollection of the victims, who claim to have seen the picture endlessly repeated in their mind's eye during the time they are, in reality, having epileptic fits. These fits are reported to continue indeterminably, often while the victims sleep, resulting in very vivid and disturbing nightmares. These may be treated with medication, though in someses it is more effective than others.
Mary E., I assumed, was not on effective medication. That was why after my visit to her apartment in 2007 I sent out feelers to several folklore- and urban legend-oriented newsgroups, websites, and mailing lists, hoping to find the name of a supposed victim of smile.jpg who felt more interested in talking about his experiences. For a time nothing happened and at length I forgot completely about my pursuits, since I had begun my freshman year of college and was quite busy. Mary contacted me via email, however, near the beginning of March 2008.
Dear Mr. L.,
I am incredibly sorry about my behavior last summer when you came to interview me. I hope you understand that it was no fault of yours, but rather my own problems that led me to act out as I did. I realized that I could have handled the situation more decorously however, I hope you will forgive me. At the time, I was afraid.
You see, for fifteen years I have been haunted by smile.jpg. Smile.dog comes to me in my sleep every night. I know that sounds silly, but it is true. There is an ineffable quality about my dreams, my nightmares, that makes them completely unlike any real dreams I have ever had. I do not move and do not speak. I simply look ahead, and the only thing ahead of me is the scene from that horrible picture. I see the beckoning hand, and I see Smile.dog. It talks to me.
It is not a dog, of course, though I am not quite sure what it really is. It tells me it will leave me alone if only I do as it asks. All I must do, it says, is "spread the word". That is how it phrases its demands. And I know exactly what it means: it wants me to show it to someone else.
And I could. The week after my incident I received in the mail a manila envelope with no return address. Inside was only a 3 ½ -inch floppy diskette. Without having to check, I knew precisely what was on it.
I thought for a long time about my options. I could show it to a stranger, a coworker… I could even show it to Terence, as much as the idea disgusted me. And what would happen then? Well, if Smile.dog kept its word I could sleep. Yet if it lied, what would I do? And who was to say something worse would not come for me if I did as the creature asked?
So I did nothing for fifteen years, though I kept the diskette hidden amongst my things. Every night for fifteen years Smile.dog has come to me in my sleep and demanded that I spread the word. For fifteen years I have stood strong, though there have been hard times. Many of my fellow victims on the BBS board where I first encountered smile.jpg stopped posting I heard some of them committed suicide. Others remained completely silent, simply disappearing off the face of the web. They are the ones I worry about the most.
I sincerely hope you will forgive me, Mr. L., but last summer when you contacted me and my husband about an interview I was near the breaking point. I decided I was going to give you the floppy diskette. I did not care if Smile.dog was lying or not, I wanted it to end. You were a stranger, someone I had no connection with, and I thought I would not feel sorrow when you took the diskette as part of your research and sealed your fate.
Before you arrived I realized what I was doing: was plotting to ruin your life. I could not stand the thought, and in fact I still cannot. I am ashamed, Mr. L., and I hope that this warning will dissuade you from further investigation of smile.jpg. You may in time encounter someone who is, if not weaker than I, then wholly more depraved, someone who will not hesitate to follow Smile.dog's orders.
Stop while you are still whole.
Terence contacted me later that month with the news that his wife had killed herself. While cleaning up the various things she'd left behind, closing email accounts and the like, he happened upon the above message. He was a man in shambles he wept as he told me to listen to his wife's advice. He'd found the diskette, he revealed, and burned it until it was nothing but a stinking pile of blackened plastic. The part that most disturbed him, however, was how the diskette had hissed as it melted. Like some sort of animal, he said.
I will admit that I was a little uncertain about how to respond to this. At first I thought perhaps it was a joke, with the couple belatedly playing with the situation in order to get a rise out of me. A quick check of several Chicago newspapers' online obituaries, however, proved that Mary E. was indeed dead. There was, of course, no mention of suicide in the article. I decided that, for a time at least, I would not further pursue the subject of smile.jpg, especially since I had finals coming up at the end of May.
But the world has odd ways of testing us. Almost a full year after I'd returned from my disastrous interview with Mary E., I received another email:
I found your e-mail adress thru a mailing list your profile said you are interested in smiledog. I have saw it it is not as bad as every one says I have sent it to you here. Just spreading the word.
The final line chilled me to the bone.
According to my email client there was one file attachment called, naturally, smile.jpg. I considered downloading it for some time. It was mostly likely a fake, I imagined, and even if it weren't I was never wholly convinced of smile.jpg's peculiar powers. Mary E.'s account had shaken me, yes, but she was probably mentally unbalanced anyway. After all, how could a simple image do what smile.jpg was said to accomplish? What sort of creature was it that could break one's mind with only the power of the eye?
And if such things were patently absurd, then why did the legend exist at all?
Why Dogs Don't Smile
At some point in your relationship with your dog, you may find yourself wondering whether or not your dog is happy. Happiness is a complicated subject for most humans, not to mention how we might understand it in dogs. Yet there may be times, even frequent times, when your dog is sitting there smiling at you, and you feel like your dog is smiling because it is happy. Most owners learn to tell when their dog either likes or really doesn’t like something, but understanding more nuanced signals like the smile can be confusing. While smiling to express happiness or contentment is one possibility, the truth is that dogs don’t smile the ways human do. Here’s what your dog might really be feeling when it flashes its pearly whites.
The Root of the Behavior
Encouraging the Behavior
If you notice that your dog appears to be smiling a lot, check its other body language to make sure that it is really smiling because it is content. A common scenario in which your dog might look happy, but really be smiling in distress, is when it is being hugged. Though hugging a dog is not uncommon, it is highly likely that it stresses your dog out. It often does not stress dogs out enough that they would whine or show signs of anxiety, especially if your dog trusts you, but by watching carefully as someone hugs a dog, you will notice that the dog tenses up instead of relaxing.
If you notice your dog smiling at odd times, or frequently, check to see if there is a pattern associated with the smile. If you notice your dog smiling every time you play music, check to see whether or not your dog likes your music, or is stressed out by it. If your dog doesn’t completely relax when you pet it a certain way, consider that perhaps it doesn’t make your dog feel comfortable. If your dog smiles when it sees a certain person, consider whether or not the smile is because your dog is happy to see the person, or nervous. Being able to read your dog is an important part of being able to care for your dog through stressful situations.
Other Solutions and Considerations
Be particularly careful with dogs smiling around children. As a general rule, small children do not make dogs feel comfortable. Quite the opposite, in fact. Even more dangerous, small children do not typically have the ability to determine whether or not a dog is smiling at them, or snarling at them. A study conducted by the University of Lincoln and the Blue Dog Trust showed that 67 percent of 4-year-olds are unable to identify an angry dog’s face, while 30 percent directly mistook angry expressions for happy expressions. Though this number improves as children grow up, it remains a cause for concern until approximately the age of eight or nine.
Written by a Shiba Inu lover Patty Oelze