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October 08, 2018
When we adopt an animal under our wing we get very excited when they respond to us. Having a language barrier can make communication hard, so when we see something 'human' mirrored back we are very pleased. Take the 'Dog Smile' for example. A smile is a very human trait: we usually use it to express happiness, however we can use it to hide other emotions too. The same is the case with dogs, what emotion are they really trying to display?
What is behind that Doggy Smile exactly?
A dog smile is a very complicated thing. Some see it as the epitomy of happiness whereas others see it as a cry for help from the dog. With social media being happy to post, share and tag 'dog smiles' constantly, how can we tell if the smile is truly a happy one?
Now I am not an expert on dogs, but this is something I have been noticing more and more as I am on Social Media: how we idolise Dog Smiles. I myself have been on Facebook and thought "oh how cute they're smiling" one more than one occasion - usually on puppy videos - however there are some videos when I think, "that dog isn't happy. They aren't smiling, that's a forced smile."
But how do we know for sure? Take this video for example:
Puppy Smile from r/aww
Not being a 'dog person' I simply saw the dogs face and went 'Oh how cute and adorable'. After sharing this video I was told that this puppy wasn't happy at all and I shouldn't be sharing this sort of content as it encouraged bad behaviour. I was very shocked and did a quick Google Search into 'The Dog Smile'. But I was still confused, the puppy still seemed okay to me, or at least compared to the examples of an unhappy smile I had seen on the internet: if it was a more obviously negative display how had this viral video gotten that popular so quickly without people flagging it up beforehand?
Six or so months on, I thought I would re-analyse this video and look at the whole puppy rather than just focusing on the cute puppy face and smile now that I had some 'Smile Research' behind me.
Once again I saw the puppy smiling, their little girl not showing much teeth and a tongue lolling out fairly happy. But then I thought about the body language, yes it seemed relaxed and not rigid - however is this is probably due to the way the owner is holding the puppy. Now I focused on the puppy's actions themselves. Notice that they are breathing really fast as you can see from their belly movement. Now this could be due to the puppy feeling hot and trying to pant quicker as well as the lolling tongue being out to cool down or this action could be because they feel stressed in this situation and are trying to look submissive.
It's so hard to be sure. According to 'The Dodo' and their sources, when a dog is most content and relaxed, a dogs facial muscles will relax "making their mouth open and the corners of mouth turn upwards..." but an open mouth and wrinkly snout may not be the happiness we hope to see in our furry loved ones.
A dogs smile can be narrowed down to Submissive, Aggressive and Relaxed...
This is often seen in puppies trying to appease older dogs or a dog trying to show submission to a person or dog if they feel uncomfortable in a situtation or the dominant party is showing agression. This smile features a lifted upper lip to show the teeth in a closed 'toothy-smile' and the dog's posture will be lower than ususal. This can we seen in some online videos when the dog seems to have been 'trained' - whether intentional or not - to smile. As humans, we think it's adorable and praise them in a high pitched voice. But in reality is this not a dog trying to appease their owners and therefore the grin they give off nothing more than a form of submissance?
The dog will then repeat this smile - even if it is a false smile - because it has received attention and maybe rewards for the action: this is how people turn it into a trick. Equally, it is quite possible that your dog is making this type of smile to make you happy because they are mimicking you and your actions as a way of showing affection.
Here the dog will have shown prior that they aren't happy. Their body language will be emiting unhappiness: Rigid body, ears pushed back, muzzle wrinkled, eyes tight, lips pulled back over 'snarling' smile, this smile may be open. This can be mistaken for a submissive grin and should not be taken lightly,. If a dog is smiling like this it could be very dangerous as the dog is telling you to leave them alone rather than trying to apease you, you'd need to see the whole dog to identify their body language.
Relaxed 'happy' Smile:
We choose to believe that a relaxed smile means a happy one. This is due to anthropomorphising the dog to be more human, associating their character to that of a human, therefore a smile from a relaxed state must mean they are happy. At this point you need to check the dog's body language for 'happy dog' characteristics. Is their tongue out? Is their body relaxed? Are their ears in their natural resting position? Is their tail wagging and are their eyes bright?
However we cannot just rely on that alone. We should also consider other factors to fully be sure that the dog is okay. How has their character been? Do they seem stressed? What sort of environment are they in at the moment? What's the weather like - if it's too hot they might be opening their mouth and lolling their tongue to pant to cool down quicker. It is always best to consider the dog as a whole before jumping to conclusions.
Some smiles are obvious. Dogs, like humans, enjoy life and they are the embodument of that enjoyment. Simply utter the world 'walk' and they are at the door ready to go. Some captured photos or videos of 'Doggy Smiles' are when out for a walk enjoying their favourite running ground. Others might be happy because a tasty treat is in sight and they are obviously overjoyed about this outcome. But sometimes, it is hard to say for sure what your dog is thinking or feeling emotionally.
There's no doubt that they are smiling, it's just weather the smile has that positive human connection we want it to have, or if it's their own happy K9 equivalent look of shining eyes, wet nose, relaxed ears and lolling tongue.
It's hard, we don't want to hear that our dog is not comfortable when we thought they were happy, next time your dog smiles, try to look back and analyse how their character has been just before the smile. Is it a happy one? How is their upper face arranged, a lot of emotion comes from the dogs ears, eyes and upper part of their snout.
What are your thoughts on this blog post? We'd love to hear from you!
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