Types of dog smiles
One of my favorite private consultations of all time was with a family who came to me anxious and sad because they were worried about how their beloved Golden Retriever was doing towards their two month old baby. Although the dog had been a total angel for more than four years, they were afraid of having to take him in or maybe even put him to sleep: “He has become aggressive and is showing our daughter his teeth.”
I was preparing for an emotional session. In my job, being honest with my clients is critical, especially when it comes to a child’s safety. Sometimes management and training are enough, but with a newborn – or really children of any age – in the house, there cannot be any mistakes or management flaws. A gate that isn’t locked or a door that isn’t closed can easily happen to anyone (especially new sleep deprived parents), but such mistakes can have dire consequences.
When I met her dog during our appointment, I couldn’t reconcile my immediate impression of his docile nature with a dog threatening a baby. They described how he showed his teeth for a moment when they brought their daughter into the living room after a nap, when he saw her for the first time every morning, and when they came home with her after an absence. Because it was always a greeting, and because her dog looked about as threatening as the average butterfly, I suspected he was smiling, but I must have known for sure. I couldn’t afford to be wrong. A baby’s safety depended on my understanding and assessment of the situation.
I let her step into the hallway with the baby for a few minutes and then return to my office. And then I saw it: a beautiful smile from a beautiful dog. It was accompanied by a loose body, a gentle but enthusiastic tail wag, a relaxed face and what I can only describe as an adoring look.
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Fortunately, there was no need to bring bad news. Although these customers came to me because they thought it was an aggressive dog, I could honestly and happily tell them that he was not aggressive at all, but rather social, cute and gentle.
In other words, their fears were misplaced. Although the dog regularly withdrew its lips and revealed its teeth, it did not behave aggressively. (We discussed some reasonable, standard, baby-related topics, of course, including the fact that all dogs and babies must be supervised and cannot be left alone.)
So what was this dog doing? He performed a behavior called smiling, in which, like in humans, the teeth are shown.
Two types of dog smiles
What most of us call a dog smile is really a grin, a happy face of a funny dog with an open mouth. With this kind of “happy grin”, which can last minutes, the lower jaw hangs open and the corners of the lips are relaxed and pulled back. Sometimes the tongue hangs out or is at least visible in the mouth. Although the lower teeth show often, the upper teeth are unlikely to show.
The second type we are discussing here is lip retraction, which reveals the upper and usually lower teeth as well. Because it resembles an aggressive phrase we call a “tooth display”, it can freak people out. However, this type of smile has absolutely nothing to do with aggression. It’s quite a social phrase indeed.
This smile is different from tooth ads or big grins. Both tooth advertisements and smiles show the upper teeth, but unlike tooth advertisements, a smile that is subtle quickly comes about. The upward movement of the lips away from the teeth is often small and the retraction seldom takes more than a second. The combination of minimal movement and speed makes it a challenge to capture them photographically. They have to be at just the right angle and height, which is difficult when a dog is moving and often wagging not just its tail but much of its body, as is so often the case when dogs are smiling.
Tooth presentations, on the other hand, are usually done by a dog who is quite stiff and located in both the body and face. Showing the teeth is slower and the printout may take a few seconds or more. Tooth displays are often an indication that a dog has been pushed past their comfort zone, possibly by approaching or touching another dog or person, when they have a treasured item or are exhausted / in pain and want to be left alone.
More to smile
Whenever a dog smiles in this fleeting, friendly, and social way, it makes me happy. In my opinion it shows many positive traits of this dog and the relationship between the dog and the recipient of the smile. Smiling dogs tend to be social, associative, and affectionate.
Even so, I am not aware of any scientific studies that examine the meaning and context of such a smile. Therefore, I base this opinion (and discussion) on my own experience with smiling dogs, as well as discussions with other dog trainers and behaviorists over the years.
Smiles are often given when greeting people the dog loves, especially if the dog has not seen the person in a while. The smile seems to suggest that the dog is overjoyed (to use a non-technical term!) About the reunion and the opportunity to greet them.
I used to think this smile was a sign of a dog who was easily conflicted during a greeting – nervous and excited, or maybe interested, but also cautious. However, I am no longer convinced that this is true. I recently had the opportunity to see this behavior up close. Roxy, a mix of Great Pyrenees and Poodles who stayed with us during her family’s trip, took turns sleeping with different family members. Every morning she smiled when she greeted those in whose room she hadn’t slept or when one of us came home after a few hours. Her biggest smile, however, showed when her family returned after more than a month of absence. She was absolutely thrilled to see them.
I recently spoke to Chelse Wagner, CBCC-KA CPDT-KA, from Doge’s Best Friend Training in Madison, Wisc, about what ethologists refer to as a smile. When I started working as a dog trainer, I assisted in Chelses training courses where I learned a lot by watching her work with dogs and with people. While I was pondering this topic, I contacted her to ask some questions about smiling (including the role of conflict and sociality) because I don’t know anyone better who reads dogs. She has several decades of experience working with dogs in animal shelters, as a trainer and as a dog behavior consultant.
Chelse pointed out that dogs who show a smile tend to have loose bodies, but often hold back their ears and keep their bodies lower to the ground; This can make them appear more ambivalent or contradicting than happy. Chelse lived with two dogs that smiled like that; One was an exceptionally social greyhound named Sage. As she described it, the longer someone was gone, the more likely Sage’s smile would appear and be exaggerated. The other, her older mini Australian Charlie, smiled more than he was younger than now. He was most likely smiling at Chelse’s husband, perhaps (as she suggests) because he was the first to be gone for a long time.
It has been suggested that dogs that smile learn from humans. Smiles are very common in primates, including humans, and dogs are very likely to copy us. This implies that dogs that smile have good social skills, which suits my experience. I can’t think of a dog that I’ve seen smile that is not social. I also can’t think of any dogs I’ve seen smiles that tended to get aroused or out of control in play, greetings, or other social situations. That being said, I haven’t seen many dogs smile like that. But due to its fleeting nature, I probably missed it even if it was there.
When dogs learn to smile from people, it suggests that they have a strong connection with us and are able to mimic our behavior. It also explains the vaguely uncomfortable and unnatural appearance of the smile. Dogs that smile remind me of young children who are asked to smile for a photo but don’t know how to offer a natural smile that really reflects happy feelings.
A good result
The couple with the small baby and the smiling Golden Retriever considered taking their dog in or even euthanizing it because they feared for the safety of their child. Imagine their joy – and mine! – when I could tell them he was just smiling and explain what that meant. He was a cute, sociable dog, as they’d always thought, and his toothy demeanor was more of an ecstatic greeting than a threat.
Without knowing for sure what was in this dog’s heart, I could say with confidence that it emerged from his behavior as if he loved the baby. No wonder this advice is one of my all time favorites!