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Who can resist a dog smiling up at them, whether in real life or on social media?

We’ve all seen it at one time or another. A dog looks over at you with a relaxed face and a big smile, emitting pure joy (and sometimes a little slobber). You can’t help but think they’re the happiest pup on the planet. But is your dog really happy, or are they just trying to catch their breath?

The Motivation Behind Happy Dogs and Their Pearly Whites

Animal behaviorists don’t consider an open mouth as the same expression of happiness that a human expresses when they smile. 

As dog owners, we assume our dogs are generally happy most, if not all, of the time. So when they bare their teeth or start panting with a wide mouth, we instinctively think they are happy dogs and connect the action with our dogs smiling. 

It really boils down to the motivation behind baring their pearly whites. And we can learn a lot just by noticing a dog’s body language.

Copy Cats (or Dogs, Rather)

Dogs are experts at analyzing and mimicking human behavior, so it’s no surprise that they can read our facial expressions and know when we’re happy. And it doesn’t take a dog detective to know that when we’re happy, we’re more likely to give treats, rewards, and praise with words and touch. 

Our dogs will mirror the happiness they perceive back to us, whether in facial expressions or wagging their tails. And before we know it, we’re rewarding them without realizing it. 

Panting Pups

Sometimes we mistake panting for big, wide grins, especially in “happy” breeds like Golden Retrievers, Corgis, and Labradors. These breeds have expressive faces, so sometimes we perceive them as smiling dogs when they’re doing ordinary dog stuff like running, panting, and playing. 

If it’s a particularly hot day or your dog looks like it needs a drink of water, he or she may be happy, but their smile is probably a regular facial expression they can’t control.

Signs of Submission

Finally, dogs experience feelings of joy, guilt, and sadness in the same ways humans do. Instead, they read human behavior and sense the tone of your voice to decide how to respond to your emotions. If you are unhappy with them, they might lower their heads, squint their eyes, and show their teeth as a way to show submission or demonstrate that they are not a threat. 

On the other paw, some dogs bare their teeth as a sign of aggression towards other dogs. Always be mindful of a dog’s body posture and context clues when in a social setting with your pup.

Is your dog smiling at you or with you?

In conclusion, a “smiling” dog is really an invitation to determine their body language (and maybe snap a photo or two!). Smiling could be a fun trick they know to get more treats, or it could be an act of submission or guilt. Either way, it’s a great opportunity to learn more about your dog.

Speaking of learning more about your dog, are you looking for a place to swap pet stories and advice (and maybe those smiling dog photos)? Consider joining us at Ruffly Speaking, an online community for pet parents from all walks of life!

This kind and inviting space on the internet is led by The Dog Gurus, world-renown duo Robin Bennett and Susan Briggs, who have built multiple multi-million dollar pet care businesses and dedicated their careers to helping pets live happier, healthier lives. 

Join Ruffly Speaking's online community to get their expertise on training exercises, productive reviews, and normal dog behavior so that you can give your dog the best life possible. 

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Robin Bennett, CPDT-KA

Robin Bennett is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer, author, speaker, and expert on dogs. She founded one of the largest dog training companies in Virginia and for the last 30 years has been using her expertise in "reading dogs" to teach families how to train their pets as well as helping others in the pet care industry keep dogs safe.

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Susan Briggs, MA, CPACO

Susan Briggs is a Certified Professional Animal Care Operator, author, speaker, and pet care business expert. As co-founder of The Dog Gurus, she brings over 18 years of experience in the pet industry with 12 years as co-owner and operator of a successful dog daycare, lodging, grooming, and training business in Houston, Texas.

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