Dog Smiles: It Really Means That

If the dog shows his teeth and appears relaxed and happy, you might think he is smiling with joy. But is he really showing that he’s happy? Science enlightens.

If the dog shows its teeth, it usually means nothing good. But many owners have seen their dog tuck his lips back and show his canines while appearing happy and totally relaxed.

This begs the question: can our dogs smile out of joy? Find out what science has to answer this question and how you can teach your dog to smile on command here.

What does it mean when dogs grin?

Some dogs actually smile with joy. They copied this behavior from us. Behavioral researcher Dorit Feddersen-Petersen confirms this. She researched the behavior of dogs and wolves at Kiel University for over 20 years.

Feddersen-Petersen is convinced that dogs observe us closely and are very good at adapting. They have realized that between people it is a good thing to show one’s teeth. Dogs understand that two-legged friends have nothing to do with threats (as is common between two dogs).

When a dog smiles, it repeatedly pulls its lips back briefly and shows its teeth several times in quick succession. His posture is relaxed. Dogs smile when they greet their humans or when they want to play with them.

Never mistake a dog’s smile!

Dogs can show their teeth for joy. But a dog’s smile should never be confused with a play face or a snarl.

The dog’s play face is not a smile

The smile of dogs is strongly reminiscent of the so-called play face, which wolves also show. However, the behavioral researcher Dorit Feddersen-Petersen emphasizes that the two behaviors have nothing to do with each other. The game face looks like this:

  • The dog’s eyes widened.
  • The eyes are often slightly rolled.
  • The dog shows all its teeth.
  • The mouth is wide open.

While dogs both put on the play face and smile, wolves only know the play face.

Distinguish between snarling and smiling

You need to be able to clearly tell whether a dog is showing its teeth out of joy or aggression. If a dog smiles happily, you can recognize it by these body signals:

  • relaxed posture
  • The corners of the mouth change
  • Tail wags happily

If your dog shows his teeth and wants to threaten him with it, you can recognize it by these body signals:

  • tense posture
  • Dog fixes his counterpart
  • deep, dark growl

Important: Always look at the overall situation to assess what your dog is really trying to tell you.

Teach the dog to smile

You can teach your dog to smile on command. As with any trick, all you need to do is be patient and work with positive reinforcers. The best way to do this is with a clicker so you can reward him at just the right moment. Here are three ways to teach your dog to smile.

Make sure your dog enjoys the exercise. If he doesn’t feel comfortable showing his teeth, don’t force this trick on him.

Make the dog smile with tickles

For this exercise you need:

  • a fine brush
  • a clicker
  • Reward (e.g. treats)
  • The dog should sit in front of you.
  • Slowly and gently touch your dog’s lips with the brush from above.
  • The stimulus will automatically pull his lips back. Once he does that, use the clicker.
  • Give your dog his treat.

Repeat this several times so that your dog understands that he needs to pucker his lips. Now use a signal word like “grin” or “smile” as soon as your dog pulls back its lips and practice until it has linked the signal word to the behavior.

Teach your dog to smile with cookies

To teach the dog to smile like this, you need:

  • dog biscuits
  • clickers

The dog should “sit” in front of you.
Hold out a dog biscuit so that only your front teeth can reach it.
He will automatically pull his lips up.
Reward this behavior by letting him have the cookie as soon as he shows his teeth. Give him plenty of praise.
Repeat this exercise several times until your dog has internalized the need to pull up its lips. Also, use a signal word like “grin” or “smile”.

The dog smiles by itself

Some dogs willingly show their teeth on their own. If your dog exhibits the behavior, reward it with the clicker. Also, use a signal word so that your dog learns to perform this trick on command.

How do I know if my dog is happy?

Dogs mainly use smiles to invite people to play or to greet them. It doesn’t mean the dog is happy. You can tell that your dog is doing well by other signals, such as

  • wide open pupils
  • over-the-top behavior
  • Tail swings or wags
  • Need for closeness to his people
  • urge for attention (e.g. by giving a paw)

Some dogs have copied the smile from us humans, but not all of them do it. Because dogs usually show their natural weapons (the teeth) to intimidate their opponent and not to show joy. You always have to look at the whole situation if you want to see why your dog is really puckering his lips and showing his teeth.

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