It surely makes you happy to see your pet with a wide grin, whether it be at snack time or during a belly scratch. Their mouth opens wide, their lips pull up at the corners, and their tongue lolls out. It makes sense that your pup is expressing their happiness the same way you would. But do dogs smile like we do? What about laughing?
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Why do dogs smile?
Just like us, there a million things that can make your dog happy and cause them to “smile.” And what makes one person—or dog—smile is different from what makes another smile. Maybe your dog is really excited for you to return home from a long day at work, and they love to stick their head out the window while driving down the street. They seem calm, relaxed, and happy—why wouldn’t they be smiling?!
The grin you see on your dog’s face may be your pup’s attempt at making you happy. After all, dogs are tuned in to our body language and emotions. Smiling isn’t something dogs do naturally to communicate with other dogs, but they quickly learn how effective it is with us. The response a dog gets the first time they smile is enough to cement the act into the dog’s body language vocabulary. They can deploy that smiling trick at any time.
Additionally, some dogs will appear to smile if they are showing submission to their human counterparts. This relates to the dog being in a relaxed muscular state.
Do dogs smile?
There isn’t a definitive answer to whether dogs smile, but any facial expression they make along the lines of a happy grin is probably indicative of a relaxed dog, so the association between happy dog and smiling is not far-fetched.
Your dog might look like they’re smiling, but it’s probably not in the same way you would do it out of happiness. It’s true that a relaxed open mouth in dogs typically occurs in positive settings. But your dog might actually be panting, which can look like a smile, but is more about the relaxed muscles in the muzzle and open-mouth pant than an actual smile, as humans perceive it.
This panting is often accompanied by a loose body, a gentle but enthusiastic tail wag, a relaxed face, and what can only be described as an adoring gaze. And, just as when humans do it, their smile involves showing some teeth.
And as mentioned earlier, your dog’s smile or panting may be a simple learned response. This doesn’t mean it has nothing to do with their happiness but smiling like humans do isn’t natural for dogs. After all, how would we know for certain that our dogs are smiling out of joy? Our pets can’t talk to us, and with our anthropomorphizing tendencies, it’s possible that we misinterpret what we see on dogs’ faces.
Do dogs laugh?
So, what about laughing? Do dogs chuckle when they find something funny? Similar to smiling, dogs can’t laugh exactly like humans. But our dogs have an excellent read on our feelings and rely heavily on body language for communication. As a result, they’re amazing at observing our behaviors.
The actual act of laughing is a complicated social gesture. Veterinarian Dr. Jo Myers points out that it involves a complex collection of breathing, facial movements and vocalizations, many of which a dog isn’t capable of producing. But most dogs quickly learn that human laughter means good things are happening and a few dogs who are exceptionally good mimics can come pretty close to a chuckle with a combination of smiling and breathing modifications that sound somewhat like laughter.
When it comes down to it, dogs are incredible social observers and typically eager to please their people. This is the most likely reason driving the behaviors we perceive as smiling and laughing.
How can you tell if your dog is happy?
The key to understanding if your dog is happy—or uncomfortable, on the other hand—is to be familiar with dog body language as a whole and not just focus on one behavior. For example, contrary to common belief, a dog wagging their tail isn’t always because the dog is happy. And although showing their teeth is commonly considered a sign of aggression in dogs, it can mean something else entirely when accompanied by other body language cues.
To decipher your dog’s true feelings and determine if they’re happy, consider the body language big picture:
- Tail – A happy pup will have a loose, wagging tail that’s high in the air. It’s true that happy dogs have wagging tails, even though this isn’t the only context in which they wag their tails. An uncomfortable dog might have a stiff or tucked tail in contrast.
- Ears – Look for neutral or relaxed ears as a sign of happiness. If their ears are tucked or pinned back, they may be stressed or uncomfortable.
- Eyes – Soft eyes, possibly drifting closed or into a relaxed squint, typically mean your dog is content. If they are fearful or unhappy, they’ll likely exhibit “hard eyes,” with their eyes wide open to show white.
- Muzzle – An open, relaxed muzzle indicates a relaxed and happy mood, while a tightly closed mouth can indicate that they’re uncomfortable.
- Posture – In general, a happy pup is a relaxed pup. Open body posture is indicative of a dog in a good mood. They may roll over to show you their belly and ask for affection or lean into you for scratches.
A happy dog may also playfully vocalize or make a noise that sounds similar to sneezing. This small sneezing noise is your dog’s way of telling you they want to play. Your dog may also play bow, lowering the front half of their body to the ground and stretching their front legs out, or pounce and jumping around in an attempt to get you to play with them. When your dog is happy, they may lick you or gently paw at you to express affection.
While it’s possible that dogs exhibit facial expressions similar to smiling when they are happy or content, it’s likely that both smiling and laughing are just learned behaviors and our perceptions. Taking in body language as a whole and not just one behavior can really help tell you if your dog is comfortable or not. So, when checking in with your dog to see if they’re happy, that big smile could definitely be a good sign, but be sure to stay in tune with anything else they might be trying to communicate.