One of the things that makes dogs so special is the myriad ways in which they manage to communicate with you. There’s the way they stare at you when you’re eating dinner, the speedily wagging tail when you come home after a long day, and the goofy grin they give you when that belly rub truly hits the spot. But why dogs smile actually has more meaning than you might think.
According to the experts at the ASPCA, a dog’s smile can be characterized as a display of the front teeth, normally paired with a lowered head, wagging tail, flattened ears, a “soft body posture,” or squinty eyes.
While a dog’s smile could indicate that they feel happy around you, according to the experts, in most cases, it actually means that they are showing their submission to you. In fact, according to doghealth.com, a dog’s smile is merely a gesture of appeasement or nervousness as they attempt to tell you that they like you enough to give you full control over their well-being. In other words, they are indicating, through that smile, that they will not challenge your authority because they like and trust you.
Aside from communicating a sense of fulfillment, a dog can also learn to smile from you, a phenomenon called laughter contagion. In most cases (whether or not you take notice), according to Purina, your canine pal will often reciprocate your own smile at the moment, grinning back at you to communicate the fact that they consider you a companion.
However, be careful: a showing of teeth could also be a sign of aggression, especially when paired with an erect body and growl. In order to save face (literally), be sure to study your dog’s body language before going in for that belly rub.
If you’re still wondering how to tell whether or not your pup is truly happy, key clues about their contentment will nearly always lie within their posture and body language. Normally, when a dog is happy, their posture remains relaxed—meaning their eyebrows don’t arch with anxiety and they blink often. Your canine friend might even trust you enough to expose their belly or lean into you when you pet them.
At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that a dog’s smile doesn’t usually mean that he or she is happy or content—it’s just an attempt to communicate that they approve and respect your authority over them. So, be happy—your dog understands more about your complex relationship than you ever imagined. And for more on owner-dog communication, check out 19 Things Your Dog Is Trying to Tell You.