By LisaBeth Weber
Do dogs smile? We‚Äôve all seen the upturned mouths on our four-legged friends; the immense joy a happy dog exudes when we walk through the door, ask if they‚Äôre hungry or take them to the dog park. But are we simply projecting our human emotions onto our pups‚ÄĒknown as anthropomorphizing‚ÄĒso that we see them as smiling‚ÄĒor are they smiling for real?
Victoria Schade, certified dog trainer and author of the book ‚ÄúBonding With Your Dog,‚ÄĚ says, ‚ÄúDogs use their bodies to express happiness in many ways, but a true human-style smile isn‚Äôt normally one of them.‚ÄĚ Schade explains that we‚Äôre looking at happy dogs engaged in activities they enjoy, like playing or running, and translating their wide, panting mouths into smiles.?She adds, ‚ÄúThe canine equivalent of a smile is a bouncy body, a loose tail wag, and a facial expression with soft eyes and a relaxed mouth and ears.‚ÄĚ
It‚Äôs All About Communication
Kim Brophey, certified canine behavior consultant at Dog Door Behavior Center in Asheville, North Carolina, TEDx speaker and author of ‚ÄúMeet Your Dog,‚ÄĚ sees dogs ‚Äúsmiling‚ÄĚ as an adaptive facial expression and behavior with a range of evolutionary functions and benefits.?Highlighting a communication correlation, she says, ‚ÄúWhat we view as ‚Äėsmiling‚Äô can serve to mediate conflicts, communicate deference and facilitate bonding.‚ÄĚ Brophey notes that dogs naturally appear to employ adaptive ‚Äúsmiling‚ÄĚ behaviors as a social skill and expression of emotion. She adds, ‚ÄúThough it‚Äôs fun to think about dogs as smiling deliberately, the reality is that there are very complex evolutionary forces at work.‚ÄĚ?
As to why we react the way we do when we see a dog ‚Äúsmiling,‚ÄĚ Brophey says it‚Äôs a combination of oxytocin and evolution.?‚ÄúDogs are masters at human behavior observation and manipulation,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs their niche. Their ancestry and experiences have informed them on how to be effectively charming.‚ÄĚ?
This ‚Äúsmiling‚ÄĚ is endorsed by humans when they react, laugh, give treats, pet and clap. Dogs quickly learn that this is a positive reaction to their behavior and will continue to smile because of it.
Brophey understands this on a scientific level, but gleefully admits that she is duped on a daily basis by the dozens of dogs she meets. She does, however, remind herself and others to honor and respect the evolutionary love story between people and dogs.?Each and every dog is a complex biological individual with their own emotions, intelligence, experience,?personality and opinions.
Dog Body Language
For over 10 years, Schade has been a key animal handler‚ÄĒaka puppy wrangler‚ÄĒfor the much beloved Puppy Bowl on Animal Planet. ‚ÄúThe incredibly nuanced dog body language ‚Äėconversations‚Äô with one another can be as fleeting as a blink or as obvious as a play bow,‚ÄĚ says Schade. ‚ÄúWhen expressing joy or happiness toward one another, they‚Äôll likely use their entire body to convey it. That said, a dog‚Äôs happy ‚Äėplay face‚Äô might look like our version of a smile.‚ÄĚ?
There is another angle to the whole smiling dogs question, according to Schade. In the human world, smiles are contagious, so if a person looks at a dog and translates its expression as a smile, it‚Äôs likely that the person will smile back. Schade explains that there is also the ‚Äúsubmissive grin,‚ÄĚ which looks like a smile because the lips are drawn back and the teeth are exposed. ?The ‚Äúsubmissive grin‚ÄĚ is what we see in those ‚Äúdog shaming‚ÄĚ videos where the person is scolding a misbehaving dog, and the dog reacts by squinting its eyes and ‚Äúgrinning.‚ÄĚ
According to Brophey, there is further scientific causation for the ‚Äúsmiling‚ÄĚ reaction we get from dogs: neoteny‚ÄĒthe preservation of juvenile behaviors throughout adulthood. Ritualized and emotional greeting behaviors like ‚Äúsmiling,‚ÄĚ?licking, jumping, tail wagging and vocalization are highly adaptive behaviors in dogs, especially among juveniles, and is significantly influenced by genetic domestication.?‚ÄúThe evolutionary process over time has, in part, brought us to our perception of a dog‚Äôs facial expression and reaction to something positive as a smile. We then simply ooze oxytocin in the face of a smiling, wagging puppy dog, even if it is just evolutionary forces at work,‚ÄĚ explains Brophey.
Although dog behaviorists can explain the scientifically based evolutionary communication and expressions of our pups, the prevailing observation among dog owners might still be, ‚ÄúOf course my dog is smiling!‚ÄĚ