Last week I wrote about my desire to have a tail and all of its functions. (Don’t miss reader’s submissions of “If I Only Had a Brain” re-written with lyrics about a tail. It’ll make your day.) This week I’m going to focus on teeth, prompted by research supported by the Human-Animal Interaction research projects of Waltham, regarding a child’s interpretation of a canine tooth display.
Unlike tails, teeth are a body part that we all share with dogs, but we don’t always use them in similar ways. Generally, we humans show our teeth while smiling, and generally we are usually smiling when we are happy. This, of course, is not always true… think of the strained, cold-eyed smile that we’ve all seen on occasion (I call it the “What a nice dress” smile, said dripping with sarcasm). There is also the nervous smile, which is actually believed to be the forerunner of all smiles; smiles having evolved from the “fear grimace” of other primates.
What we don’t have is the kind of tooth display made by dogs as part of an “offensive pucker,” when the commissures (corners of the mouth) push forward and the upper lip is raised to display the teeth. We see teeth in a dog’s lower jaw all the time when it is relaxed and comfortable, it’s the upper teeth that most often signal a threat in dogs. Conversely, raised lips exposing upper teeth in people is a friendly signal. At least, raising our upper lips like a dog as a threat is not very common. Those of you who have seen my recent seminars might recall the story of doing that very thing myself in a “No Talking” area when grabbed from behind by a male colleague. (For the full story, see The Art and Science of Canine Behavior.) For those of you who don’t know the story, I’ll just summarize by saying that doing a full tooth display to another human is a highly effective way of stopping unwanted behavior.
Below is a great example of a tooth display and agonistic signal from young Lily to her pushy friend who was beginning to play too rough. She wasn’t being aggressive, merely telling the other dog he’d crossed over a line. He got the message and began to mind his manners. Message sent, message received, message acted upon.
However, a full tooth display from a dog turns out not to be an effective way of changing a child’s behavior. Researchers Meints, Racca and Hickey found that “Children from 4-7 years misinterpret dogs’ facial expressions.” Their research suggests that young children might be interpreting an offensive tooth display on a dog’s face as an expression of friendliness rather than a threat. Given that so many bites are to children, this is an important piece of information. (See The Blue Dog Project for more interesting research about children and dogs.)
Children aren’t the only ones who are unsure what the appearance of a dog’s teeth signifies. I’ve had no small number of clients who brought me in because their dog was “snarling” at them, only to discover a Golden Retriever with its head down, body loose and wagging, its ears back and its face taken over by what can only be described as a grin.
Whatever it signifies, we do like to use the word “smile” in association with this particular expression. BARk Magazine even has its own weekly section called Smiling Dogs. Here’s an example of one of the “smilers,” copied with permission of the BARk (thanks!), illustrating a dog showing its upper teeth in what clearly is NOT a threat.
I’d be rich if I had $10 for every time someone has asked me what this display signifies. Fear? Happiness? I’d be even richer if I had an answer. My best guess is that yes, there is fear, and yes, there is something akin to happiness underneath that expression. I see it as an expression of ambivalence, with a component of anxiety or submission, with a little something extra thrown in that we might call happiness. A friend of mine describes a dog’s “smile” as a “S— eating grin, which won’t appear in any academic journal in our lifetime, but might just be as good a description as any. Barbara Handelman, in Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, calls it a “submissive grin,” which is replicated in much of the canine ethology literature. Like “circle wags” with tails, not all dogs “smile.” Of course, like our smiles, these “grins” from dogs can mean a variety of things, and vary on a continuum from uncomfortable to downright overwhelmed with joy.
Whatever it is, most dogs don’t do it. Willie never grins, Tootsie never grins, and for that matter, I can’t think of any of my dogs who ever did. That’s my question for you: Does your dog raise her upper lip and show her upper teeth in what is clearly not a context of a threat? I’d love to see some research out there on the frequency of grins, and the context in which it is used. I look forward to your thoughts.
(By the way, on another note: Katie reminds me to mention that right now (Dec 16-18) there is free shipping on all domestic orders over $50. Most of these announcements are on Facebook or our mailing list, but not all blog readers get those notices, and we didn’t want you to lose out if you were interested. Ho Ho.)
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas (cue the music). There’s snow on the ground and it is appropriately nippy outside. (That’s a bit of an understatement, it was well below zero last night, and windy besides.) Besides the baking and the wrapping and the decorations related to Christmas, I’ve been extra busy getting clearance for Tootsie and me to be part of The Pet Pals Program through the University of Wisconsin Veterinary School. Pet Pals teams visit kids at the American Family Children’s Hospital—one of the premier cancer treatment centers in the country. Tootsie passed her behavioral evaluation, and now we are waiting to hear if she passed her medical examination, required every year for every dog, to ensure that the dogs aren’t bringing in pathogens that could endanger immune-compromised children. I have more hoops to jump through than Tootsie: proof of vaccinations impossible at age 65, believe me, got a blood titer test instead), an evening introduction for volunteers, two TB tests, background checks, interviews, etc etc.
Cross your paws for us, I’m truly excited about being in the program. I’m anxiously awaiting the results of her medical exam, that’s the only barrier that would be likely to stop us. (The exam again is for the protection of the children.) If we make it through, we’ll have our first visit in late January. In preparation, Tootsie is learning some new tricks to entertain the children, and I’m going to take her out and about a bit more to help her be comfortable in new situations. I have no concern about her behavior toward the children, she is as docile as a dog could be. I do, however, feel a great responsibility to make sure that Tootsie enjoys herself, an aspect of “canine assisted therapy” that I think is too often overlooked. She is remarkably social for a mill dog, but she could be overwhelmed by a crowd of noisy people. As Kris Butler says in Therapy Dogs Today, “… each and every handler makes up fifty percent of the team but carries one hundred percent of the responsibility.” I see my primary job as ensuring that both the children, and my dog, are enhanced by the experience.
Here’s Tootsie exploring in the snow tonight. I like the photo because the snow (not color enhanced in any way) looks like cotton candy. The pinkish color is probably caused by the yard light, but even though it’s a bit strange, it’s fun to think of the snow like a great, big blanket of spun sugar.
My Icelandic Sheepdog “smiled” from day one. She was rescued at four years old with the rest of her litter and as far as I know she’s the only one from her litter who does it, because everyone always singled her out as being adorable with her “grin.” She does it when she’s excited, and I would say that there may be a bit of an anxiety/submissive component to it because she is a high strung/anxious dog by nature. It always accompanies a playbow, eyes squinty, wiggly body and ears back. Most common times she does it are when I come home, when we are in a high energy training session/playing, or when she is playing with other dogs. Other dogs seem to interpret it correctly. She doesn’t offer it like the dog you pictured does, just sitting around, it always accompanies high energy behavior. Sometimes it accompanies what reminds me of a husky talking, could sound a bit like a growl but is more of an excited “grunt.” I want to get a picture of it one of these days but she is always moving so fast it never turns out right!
Jennifer Laus says
I had one dog who had a HUGE grin , and it was definitely a happy grin, because he only did it when seeing someone he loved. Currently I have one who grins on occasion, but not as big as the previous boy, and a girl who does it very rarely and very discreetly (you’ll miss it if not paying attention). I’ve only had one girl who never grinned. Funny that it’s uncommon and I’ve been so lucky to get 3 out of 4! All four have been Australian Shepherds.
Beth with the Corgis says
My dogs don’t ever, ever “smile” in the way you mean above (showing the upper teeth). I’ve never seen Maddie curl a lip at a human (she’s one of those dogs that you could do absolutely anything to without protest; last night she was on the couch while we were decorating the tree and, out of places to pile tissue paper from unwrapped ornaments, we tossed some absently on top of her. She barely batted an eye). Both regularly show their bottom teeth in the more typical doggie grin.
However, my parents’ Chessie smiles in greeting all the time. The trait is so common in Chessie’s that it’s called the “Chessie grin” so there must be some genetic component in there.
I can say she does it in pure joyful greeting, complete with circle wags. I don’t know if there is much of an element of submission in there; she is the only dog I know that I would classify as tending towards dominant towards people. But apparently lots of Chessies grin, usually when they are beyond thrilled to see their people. We generally visit once a week or so and have it on good sources that she eagerly awaits our visits. She throws in some tooth-snaps for good measure. She does not seem at all anxious. To her it’s a greeting, pure and simple, and a rapturous one.
I used to have a dog who smiled. Charlie was a very sweet, gentle 45 lb mixed breed (beagle, golden?) who in addition to smiling on a regular basis (typically accompanied by a circle tail wag) also had terrible thunderstorm/loud noise phobia; he was so bad that he actually had to be medicated or he’d claw through drywall. Charlie would panic in a crate although was fine being left alone in the house. (I should mention I got him from the humane society when he was already a senior – maybe around 8 years old). He wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer: Charlie like to walk the same route around the perimeter of the yard as part of his daily routine; I had a rose bush that he’d walk by and I swear he’s get spooked every day when his feathery tail got snagged on the thorns!
I’d like to see a study around ‘smiling’ vs fear/anxiety in dogs to see if there is a correlation.
My 6-year-old, mixed breed (Rottie X?) has a wonderful, lopsided grin. She only displays it occasionally, lifting her lip on one side only, almost always when sitting and waiting for a treat. I think it tends to happen when I take too long wrestling with a treat bag. She came home from a shelter at age 1. She appeared to have not spent much time indoors. She is extremely observant of people’s body language. While confident greeting people, she is very sensitive to any negative feedback. (When I first brought her home and turned my back on her in response to unwanted behavior, she shrank back as if kicked.)
Barbara Yeamans says
When I was a child, my family had a cocker/lab mix that smiled on command. Licky would pose, in a sitting position and smile for the camera. She would often break I to a “smile” when she was excited or happy to see her family come home. She might not have understood why it worked, but it seemed to make her family so happy when she did it!
Of our two Aussies, our girl, Sydney, is the smiler. She doesn’t do it often, but I can think of one very memorable instance when my husband and I were playing with and giving belly-scratches to Darwin (our male Aussie) on our bed. We invited her up to join the fun, and in the split second before she launched herself on the bed, her upper lip lifted and we got a full doggy-smile before she hopped up and torpedoed into us, her nub all a-wiggle, for belly-scratches and cuddles (she’s also an unapologetic cuddler).
The memory stands out so vividly because that was the first time she’d ever done it. The times since then have been few and far between, but always marked by some sort of activity she loves. Usually cuddles.
Karin Graeff says
Yes, my Aussies smile! My standard Aussie would smile when excited, or when she would try to tell someone afraid of dogs that she was not a threat (even though, she most definitely looked like one!). Our young mini Aussie smiles when she is happily excited, too. For example, she will wait on the bed after we get up until I am showered and come back into the bedroom to get dressed. When I peek around the corner and she sees me, she grins and wags her tail, raises her butt some and then gives me the full greeting with jumping up to give me kisses. She has also started to smile at my husband when he comes home and she runs up to greet him.
Karen A says
I’ve had two Dobermans who grinned, always accompanied by a play bow and madly wagging stub of tail. Displayed most often when a family member arrived home but also at other happy/exciting times. Most of my Kangal livestock guardian dogs also grin, but they do it laying belly up, tails wagging, begging for a belly rub. Often accompanied by sneezing, oddly enough. It seems very common in the breed.
Neither of mine grin with upper teeth showing but both with give me happy canine smiles of the curved lip, open mouth, bottom teeth showing variety. They’ll both laugh as well. The first time Finna smiled I nearly broke down in tears it was so wonderful. She’d come a long way to get to a point where she was relaxed and happy enough to smile. This is my favorite Finna smile, she looks like she’s laughing despite the fact that she’s only a few days out from knee surgery. http://www.flickr.com/photos/33350160@N02/11411987263/in/photostream/ My favorite Ranger smile is http://www.flickr.com/photos/33350160@N02/4428019257/in/set-72157621312676230.
Good luck with your Therapy Dog work. It’s really hard but incredibly rewarding. Making sure that both the dog and the person being visited are having fun is crucial to success. Some days when we’re visiting the nursing home Ranger will get tired of people with crippled hands ‘petting’ his face and I’ll shift him around until they are petting his shoulder or back usually making some remark that implies Ranger is telling them this is the perfect spot and he’d be happy to stay there all day. That’s not far from the truth. Once the stress of being banged in the face yet again is removed he’ll relax and lean in until the next dog shows up for a turn. When we go to the senior daycare he turns into a total clown and keeps everyone in stitches. He knows how to work a crowd that’s for sure. Here’s our TDI chapter Christmas photo http://www.flickr.com/photos/33350160@N02/11411892024/ I wish it had scanned a little better but how cool is this 14 dogs most of whom know each other only slightly all posed together facing the camera and looking relaxed and many even smiling. Therapy dogs are amazing.
D. Landing says
Our GSP greets us with a wrinkly-nosed snarl/grin. Same as you’ve noted with the Golden Retriever with head down, tail wagging, etc. — as well as making a very specific loud exhaling noise, one that I can only describe as a weird sort of laugh. I’ve never seen another dog do it, but we’ve also never mistaken it for anything else other than “He’s happy we’re home!”
My right year old FS border collie will use a lip curl as a distance increasing signal (I’m afraid, this is uncomfortable, heightened anxiety, etc). She will also “smile” when she sees one or two particular people who she becomes very excited for. She will cry, lick, jump, and smile while greeting these people. There is only a small group of “loved ones” she does this with. When she uses her mouth to do a lip curl it is very different than a smile – more gum shows on her upper lip, she is stiff, her pupils are dilated and she often exhibits whale eye. When she “smiles” her movements are soft, body loose, etc.
Leda Van Stedum says
My husband says the husky is asking, “How do you like my new dentures?”
My parents’ rescued mastiff mix did it when taking treats. He would push his face forward, pull his lips back from his teeth and very gingerly take the treat from your hand. They did not have him for long before he unforunately passed away from cancer, and he had been chained out in a construction yard for the past 7 years of his life, but was the sweetest dog you can imagine with humans, dogs and cats. Not a mean bone in his body. But the first few times he pulled his lips back like that, I was a bit taken aback. I quickly realized it was not a warning, just how he accepted treats, but it was still a bit unusual.
My Border Collie/Golden Retriever mix smiles. I’ve always thought it was an expression of happiness because she does it most often when she’s playing with a toy (she looks up at me with that look on her face, which seems to be an invitation to come play with her) or when she’s wanting a belly rub (she throws herself on her back and grins).
This is her playing grin, photo take from below so you can really see it. http://farm9.staticflickr.com/8346/8252944661_dbe8cc2449_c.jpg (You can see the softer eyes and that her ears are pretty relaxed)
Here she is showing her teeth when laying on her side, wanting a belly rub. http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6200/6110419134_818634142a_b.jpg
She does sometimes just lift one side of her lips (we call it her “Elvis grin”), something I think she does out of excitement and anticipation. I see it most often at agility class when waiting to take off for a run.
Lana W says
My family had a dog when I was a child who smiled, he was a black dog shaggy mix of something….. However I have known or owned 10+ dogs since then and none have smiled!
I work at a dog daycare/boarding facility. Among the probably-about-a-thousand dogs who I’d consider regulars, there have been MAYBE a dozen who smiled regularly. Virtually all of them have been retrievers or herding breeds — in fact, I can’t think of any examples of smilers who weren’t.
My favorite border collie would smile every morning when she came into the lobby, with loose sweeping low wags of her tail (simultaneously goofy and apologetic, looked like a combination of appeasement and so-glad-to-see-you), head canted slightly to the side (also in her default submissive/appeasement repertoire, usually left side up, if that has any significance), sometimes with very subtle lip-licking, but with her legs prancing happily, hauling on the leash to get to me and ears dancing between sideways/meek and lightly perked/pleased. She’d jump up, give my face one distracted lick, and then wiggle-butt her way down the hallway to go play with the other dogs. It was the most mixed-message greeting, and it happened like clockwork every morning — a spoonful of “oops, sorry, pardon me, can’t help myself, such a klutz, please excuse” and a spoonful of “oh boy, it’s you, I haven’t seen you in like TWENTY FOUR HOURS, bestthingever” with a sprinkle of anxiety on top.
Also, regarding humans and the baring teeth thing. One of my favorite actors played a fair amount of characters with anger management problems and expresses that anger through baring his teeth. It’s certainly very effective! I’d back off from it, that’s for sure.
Renee Flickner says
My yellow lab Belle, adopted at 6 years old, shows all of her teeth while she’s getting her belly rubbed and getting massages. It’s not that often you can walk past Belle, while she is laying down, that she doesn’t put herself into the “rub my belly position” as I call it. I tend to think that my husband and I somehow created that behavior(her offering her belly) by offering her belly rubs whenever she was laying down. Anywho, she loves her belly rubs and massages and I believe she is smiling out of nothing but complete joy. 🙂
Neither of my BCs smiles with upper teeth … a woman I used to train in agility with had a little Bichon male that gave a submissive grin to humans almost all the time – it was how we could tell him apart from my classmate’s other Bichon! And he got a lot of reinforcement for it.
Our Aussie smiles on one side when he’s happy to see us, and on both sides when he’s REALLY excited someone has come home!
Our Aussie mix has a lovely submissive grin which varies in intensity given the situation. The more excited and unsure he is, the bigger the display. Right before he came into our lives, he had experienced a lot of instability – dumped at a southern shelter with Parvo, fostered for a bit, placed in a home, returned to the foster due to financial issues etc. The first month in our home, he had over-the-top displays, even when we calmly greeted him or tried to ignore him. He would show us every inch of his teeth and the display would end in a chatter-snap sequence, and it made me a little nervous; some of the chatter-snaps ended up very close to our faces. Thankfully, as he integrated into our home, the displays lessened and we are now greeted with a nice, toothy, relaxed smile and we love it. Definitely agree that it is an expression of ambivalence/submission/happiness.
Is that really a grin of whatever kind or just an effect of gravity?
It appears that the picture should be turned almost all the way upside down (not quite if you turn your laptop counter clock wise) for the blinds behind the girl and the leash position to make sense. And in that position, gravity could pull the lips just like that.
Cute Snow Tootsie!!!
I’m so thrilled to see this post! I have been curious about these toothy dog grins for years and had begun to wonder if they were similar to a primate submissive grin in function. (Thanks for the reference to Handelman’s book – can’t wait to learn more!) More recently I’ve been noticing that, in my experience, they seem to be most common in dogs who are highly sensitive to human behavior (as noted in some of the other comments here). I’ve been wondering if this is an adaptive, or learned behavior, or if it could have even been selected for by our primate-behavior favoring selves. Fascinating stuff! Thanks again.
My Labs have never really smiled in that way. The only one of them that ever really showed her teeth was our Sally and that was only in playful games of bite-face. But I’ve seen plenty of other dogs that have toothy smiles. I wonder if it’s breed related?
Here’s my piece of anecdata: Out of five dogs over the years, only my greyhound Opal, smiles. She did it more when she was younger and would mostly smile when she got excited about guests coming. At that point, she also had a tendency to jump on people if a family member hadn’t grabbed her first, and many guests were a bit alarmed to see a greyhound launching at their face with exposed teeth. 😛 Now she smiles very rarely, always when she’s excited and usually only at her favorite family members.
I have a similar picture of my girl “grinning”:
Here it wasn´t actually a conscious face expression. She was sleeping on her back so her lips fell back and exposed her teeth simply because of gravity and lack of muscle tonus. When she noticed me taking the picture she opened her eyes but didn´t move otherwise so she still retained that funny sleeping “grin” 🙂
Both my dogs smile a lot. My younger dog has a really awesome contagious smile with his mouth wide open, tail wagging and intensive direct eye contact – a picture of extreme happiness and affection 🙂 I know that direct eye contact is usually a threat, but not with him. He got it from his mother and both mean it as a display of affection. Although it might be the reason why he doesn´t get along well with most male dogs…
Margaret McLaughlin says
My first dog, Cobie, was a Keeshond, & they smile all the time–they’re sometimes even called the “smiling Dutchman”. Is it maybe more common in spitz-type dogs? His “angry” full-dentition display was different, but the differences were subtle–more wrinkles in the upper lip, & the corners of his mouth pushed forward. I did rely more on the rest of his posture to assess his attitude, tho’–like many dogs, he would rock forward & his eyes would go hard whenever he spotted an Akita (all his mortal enemies).
Our family poodle used to smile – I’m pretty sure it was largely a learned behaviour, perhaps originally copied from us (that was my mother’s theory, anyway!). It got rewarded by attention and praise, so stuck. It would be interesting to know if dogs with little human contact ever smile, or if it is a behaviour that they have learned gets them the results they want. Bit like me play bowing…
I’ve never had a dog that grinned, but I am fascinated by them. It always surprises me and makes me laugh. I feel bad sometimes for the owners because they spend a lot of time explaining to people who don’t know about it that it is not threatening. It’s sort of like my dog who growls when she plays.
BTW, my friend’s Golden does the “Elvis Lip Lift” every time you try to groom her in any way (remove a twig from her tail, etc). It’s clearly a sign of displeasure, but she would never hurt a soul. It’s a curious trait, almost an involuntary urge to be aggressive, but completely incapable of doing so.
Heidi Meinzer says
The dog our family had when I was a child would grin with a huge “smile” particularly when she was surprised by something. For instance, the one time I remember best was when our father — who she absolutely adored — had a Halloween mask on and she started barking at him. As soon as he took it off, she smiled from ear to ear, wagged her tail as hard as she could and crawled over to him.
Another smiling dog I recall with fondness was a a very friendly stray dog who came right over and greeted me and my friends with a big grin when we were traveling in Italy.
Johanna Solms says
Our late Chessie, Stoker, was a great grinner. Most often, she would harass a cat with a poke, and then grin at us and sometimes also wag. It was definitely related to mischief and a daily thing. The two chessies I have now are not grinners, though one of them has made that face once or twice in her life, more an anxiety/submissive thing.
I have 3 dogs, 2 pitbulls mixes and one terrier mix that looks like a Benji – not sure her breed. The Benji dog raises her top lip sometimes when she seems happy, usually while cuddling with me and I just saw her this morning standing on the deck in the snow and when I knocked on the window, she turned around towards me and there were her teeth. She seemed very relaxed.
No smiling dogs here – at least, not the way you’ve described. What I think of as a doggie smile is that open, relaxed mouth that shows the bottom teeth, which I most often see after a great play session.
I agree with you that many overlook the dog’s enjoyment in canine assisted therapy. My Yuki is registered with Pet Partners and he absolutely loves going to the nursing home and the juvenile detention center. When I first started doing visits with him, people asked me why I did not get Claire registered, especially given that both my dogs are very comfortable around walkers, wheelchairs, and people with obviously different movement patterns. My answer was always simply that Claire would not enjoy it. She has never understood why strangers want to touch her and it takes her a while to warm up to new people (which my upperclass students love, since it means she is sweet to them but snubs my freshmen). Why put her through something she finds work when Yuki is so incredibly happy to do it?
You missed one type of teeth-baring! My dog sleeps on his back quite a lot and while he does that, he gets so relaxed that his lips totally flap free, showing all of his beautiful dentition 😀 I would post a picture if I could 😉
Beth with the Corgis says
Eva, my female Corgi loves to gaze lovingly into eyes. She’s the most submissive thing, but she adores direct eye contact. It does make her less than a sure thing with other dogs though; she will gaze at them too and many don’t like it. She never read the chapter in the Dog Body Language book that says direct eye contact is threatening.
My guy’s nickname is Smiley Joe because he grins so much. The first thing he did when I went to see him in his foster home was give me a great big smile. I suspect one of the reasons I was approved to adopt him was I responded with, “Oh! He is a smiler!” and the foster mom was thrilled she didn’t have to explain that he wasn’t about to bite me. He mostly smiles at new people and people he likes whom he hasn’t seen in awhile. I see the smile when he has done something he knows he shouldn’t have but couldn’t resist and doesn’t regret. I call it his insincere apology.
My Catahoula mix is a fabulous submissive grinner in one context: greeting people she adores (which is most people, familiar and unfamiliar.) Here’s the funny part, though… Tinker came to me at the shelter where I work as a puppy with her sister; they were about 8 weeks old and had been left in a box at a rest stop. Tinker is a very unusual looking girl: mostly white with a wash of red spots, a gray merle muzzle with a white star on her forehead and one large spot (used to be black, now washed-out reddish) in the middle of her back. When she was about a year old, a couple brought in a dog that had been dumped at a neighbor’s house–and “Spaught” as we named him was the absolute spitting image of Tinker: same coloring, same white star, same big spot on his back, same age… and he was also a submissive grinner. I have to think he was a litter mate, and my suspicion is–there is a genetic component in submissive grinning. Based on all the shelter dogs I’ve seen over the years, it doesn’t seem to be that common, and there does seem to be an age of onset: around 4 months in some of the pups we’ve had here. And it doesn’t seem to be “learned” (though I’m sure it gets reinforced once it appears.) I seem to see it mostly in dogs that are extremely sociable with people–dogs that are diehard compulsive greeters. In Tinker, it comes across as a combination of joy, arousal and Sally Field anxiety: “You like me? Do you really like me? You really like me?!” It’s one of my favorite behaviors in dogs, and wow, like everyone, I’m super curious–why do some dogs do it while so many others don’t?
Laurie Luck - Smart Dog University says
We have just one dog who grins and we love it. We’ve noticed that it usually happens when he’s meeting new people and/or he can’t quite get to them as he’d like. For instance, *every* time he goes into the veterinary office, he puts his paws on the counter and smiles at the folks on the other side. He doesn’t do this, though, if they come around and pet him. Very endearing.
One comment on therapy dog visits. I had my dog certified as a therapy dog (a rigorous session of 10 classes). He’s wonderful at it. Me, not so much. I was so stressed and worried about whether I was behaving as I should, if my dog was friendly enough, would I say the wrong thing, was the patient enjoying it as much as they should. I found that I liked telling people I did it (there is an automatic halo that appears over the head of the dog and the owner) with my dog than actually doing it. I finally figured out I wasn’t doing anyone any good if I didn’t enjoy it so I gave it up. I do admire those that are good at it tho.
So cool that Tootsie might get to visit children with you! Every Cavalier I have ever met I fall in love with.
Rye, my 12 year old English Setter is a “smiler”. He does it when we come home after being gone a while. His whole body wags while he lifts his lip to show his front teeth, and he sneezes. I always get a little bit upset when I read that it is a submissive grin or a fear based behavior since that does not seem like what he’s doing to me at all. I always have thought of it as a super happy greeting!
My dog, a hound-terrier mix, does a huge teeth-baring grin that scares people who don’t recognize that it’s a grin. She shows so much teeth that it looks a lot like aggression at first glance.
When she’s warning another dog who won’t back off she pulls her top lip back (showing mostly the top teeth) with her top & bottom jaws open a bit and pins her ears flat against her head.
When it’s a grin she shows all of her teeth (top & bottom jaw pressed tight together), wrinkles her nose, sneezes (I’ve heard this is prompted by the wrinkled nose?), holds her ears back a bit, and has a lovely loose (if somewhat frantic) body wag.
When I see it, the difference is obvious, but writing about it reminds me of how it could be unclear to someone who doesn’t know dog body language.
Susan Whelan says
My standard poodle has the best s**t eating grin that you could imagine and he uses it to great effect. It’s only when he’s happy and getting attention. Sometimes he’ll do the Elvis side lip curl when he thinks I could be paying him more attention, but he only grins for me and only if he knows I’m looking at him. The worst part about the grins is that he’s turning a pragmatic 65-year-old former racehorse trainer into an anthropomorphizing fool.
A great sequence of his grins can be seen here: http://www.susannaoriginals.blogspot.ca/2013/04/dewey-and-corky.html
Our last brace of dogs smiled all the time. The Golden was a consummate smiler hoping someone would give her a bite of whatever yummy treat they were eating or offer up the couch or rub her belly. She seemed to be using her smile as a form of barter — I smile at you and you give me something good. I watched her at a pot luck brunch go from person to person and sit in front of them and grin hoping they would share. She went around the room sitting and grinning. No one minded nor did anyone share! Her doggie soul mate would smile when the two of them would have a rousing playtime or when they were really enjoying each other’s company. Most pictures I have of the two of them, they both have happy smiles on. It’s a wonderful way to remember them.
Here’s a picture of them smiling out the window of our old Vanagon (the fun/camping/adventure car):
Wendy W says
I’ve only known two dogs who regularly smiled. One is a retired/rescued greyhound, who is calm and placid, but sometimes seems unsure of herself. She’ll flash a smile while being petted or when asking for treats. The other dog is a friend’s testy little Eskie (OMG – how do I turn this rhyming thing OFF), who over a lifetime, has slowly learned to enjoy attention. The Eskie bit me once (years ago), but will now solicit my attention, while simultaneously smiling and snarling. These dogs have led me to think that dogs who smile may be wanting attention, while also struggling with some doggie version of social anxiety.
My dog Hope never draws her lips up to smile, but occasionally, when she seems to be in a particularly devilish mood, she will curl the sides of her upper lip inwards, exposing her canines. I have no idea if she does this on purpose, or if her lips have gotten stuck there after her panting has “dried” off her teeth.
As with previous commenters, I’ve seen this in a number of greyhounds. My first boy would do it under circumstances very much similar to those described above — when he was excited about guests arriving. He would retract his lips all the way up/down from his front teeth, but his body language was nothing but excited and happy (we called it his “alien face”).
Isn’t the dog in the picture lying down? So couldn’t it just have that thing where the lip flops away, because the dog is relaxed and gravity takes over? There’s a whole tumblr of dogs lying upside-down with that goofy-manic look from the exposed upper teeth.
Haha, I also have a “goofy tumblr dog” (Shadow) and even when they sleep they sometimes exposes their teeth (Spot has floppy lips, see here my grinning sleepy dog, I suspect he dreams of yummy things since you can hear him mjumming http://youtu.be/pfzEwhb3BcI )
And if anyone is interested in two crazy sibes showing what beautiful teeth they have:
Yup, the occasion was a happy one, they were not killing each other but just running in the SNOW: something we in the Netherlands will not see this CHristmas, alas…
Ranger and I were at a Senior Day Care facility this morning along with another TDI team of a Greyhound and her partner. I glanced over at them on the other side of the table, where a woman was fondling the Greyhound’s ears, just in time to see the Greyhound peel back her upper lip and grin. My anthropomorphic thought was that the Greyhound was surprised to be enjoying it so much–kind of saying “oh, my, well that is nice.” I also noticed that when some of the people were rubbing Ranger’s belly he would have the happy smile with the curved lips, open mouth, and bottom teeth showing but also, for some people, the tips of his upper canines showing as well. I wonder if that was his version of a grin and why with some and not others.
Argus, whom we believe to be a cattledog/bc mix, smiles while curling his tailless body into the letter “c” when he is being petted. He often seems to be “frantically happy” when he’s being petted. As a rescue dog and a herding breed (or two) he is extraordinarily attuned to his people (as Lily and others pointed out is common with smilers) and also so very thrilled and grateful to be petted and loved, so I’m sure there’s an element of anxiety in there too–of the “pleeeeeeze don’t stop!!!” variety. He’s a very intense and kind of intimidating looking dog, so unless you know him, it could be a little frightening to see him “smile,” I guess.
My Border Collie Splash is 4 years old. I volunteer with a Border Collie Rescue and she was brought into our rescue by her owners who were moving and couldn’t take her with them over seas. Due to the stress she experienced from her owners leaving her I didn’t have the heart to make her go on to yet another home, and since we had room at the time she stayed with us. Her first smile I saw about a year after we got her (we have now had her for 2 years). She had to be left at the vet for a few hours and when we picked her up she came running into the room showing all the upper teeth in what would have appeared to be an all out snarl except for the fact that her whole body was wiggling and she was whining and jumped into my lap and started licking my face. Since then we see a more reserved form of this “smile” when she is really happy to see you, or you get her excited by saying one of her nicknames repeatedly in a high voice. Also you may see after you pick her up from the groomer or vet. Out of all the foster Border Collies and my past dogs (2 Kelpies, another BC, and a Chocolate Lab) she is the only one I have ever seen “smile”. It might be worth it to also mention that her 2 upper canines barely fit under her lip, the effect being that you often see the tips of 2 teeth protruding ever so slightly past her upper lip…..maybe this makes her more prone to smile?….who knows! =)
I have a mixed breed dog who occasionally gives a “submissive smile.” The context is very specific: he does it before he lunges forward to lick someone on the nose. He generally does it to people who are less familiar to him, though he sometimes does it to me or my husband. I’ve taken to warning people about it, since it can be understandably scary to have a snarling dog moving rapidly toward your face! Still, aside from the occasional accidental head-butt, no one has ever been hurt. It might also be of interest that this particular dog often gives “contradictory” body language – he regularly tucks his tail while being petted, but if you stop petting him he ducks back under your hand and seeks out additional physical contact.
Robin Jackson says
I don’t associate the upper teeth showing smile with border collies unless they have an overbite, in which case, as Shelly says, you frequently see some tooth almost all the time. Most of the bc’s I’ve known have the more typical “happy dog” smile where the upper teeth are covered, the lower jaw is relaxed, and the eyes are soft. Google “happy dog” for images and you’ll see zillions of these.
Where I have seen a lot of upper teeth showing smiles is in greyhounds, so much so that many greyhound rescues will mention it to reassure new owners that it’s not a snarl.
Here’s a typical greyhound video:
Not all sighthounds do this, but it does seem to be more common to them than many other breeds. Of course many also have undershot jaws, and that may be a factor.
“Smiling: A greyhound smile almost looks like a snarl, except the top of the muzzle isn’t pulled back. They have a way of lifting their front lips and to show their teeth and it looks like much like a human smile.”
Seems to be a lot of specific breeds popping up with smiles!
I have an Aussie who does not smile, however her mother, grandfather, and a few litter mates do smile. Her breeder told me to watch for it when I picked her up, but I don’t think she got the trait.
My two vizslas very clearly smile when they are being cuddled and petted. The corner of their mouths turn up and their mouths are closed with their upper canines showing. I’ve seen this relaxed happy expression on many other vizsla faces on friends’ facebook posts. Vizslas are very expressive. Super awesome dogs as long as you give them the exercise and attention they crave!
BTW – Patricia – I LOVE your work and writing!!!!
I had an OES/Lab that did the “you’re home you’re home you’re home” smile. She had a small shaggy mixed breed friend with the big under bite who smiled up a storm when excited/happy. I haven’t seen much smiling since the passing of those two. Current Apso doesn’t smile. Any showing of teeth is a clear message from him. He also doesn’t wag much and when he does it is a quick, base of the tail shake the pompom variety. Never the languid full sweep.
Annie R says
I had a big congenial Rottweiler-Lab mix who came from a checkered past into my life at about age 6. Trooper loved people and liked to gently take hold of your forearm and hang on, just to keep your attention on him. The SF SPCA had taught him not to do this — he was 105 lbs. so that behavior was not an asset to his adoptability — and when he would start to do this and then remember he shouldn’t, he would pull his top lip up and gaze up at you, wiggling and wagging his tail, as if to say “I didn’t mean it, I’m sorry, I just forgot”. It was really sweet and I never saw anyone mis-interpret it; in fact, people would just walk up to this dog and love him up (he had a really sweet Lab-like face, even though he was huge and black-and-tan like a Rottie).
One thing that was interesting about this appeasing behavior was that he was a super-confident, “dominant” type dog, and not really a pleaser, but he would just melt into mush if someone made a fuss over him. And his confidence resulted in his being super-relaxed in almost every situation with people. Ah, so interesting; writing about him just made me miss him intensely. I had him about 7 years and he’s been gone for about 8.
Annie R says
I also just remembered that the dog I had before Trooper, a sweet/gentle female Weimaraner/Shepherd mix, used to get these “crushes” on big, older male Golden Retrievers. There was one in the apartment complex we lived in later in her life, and he was a big grinner. He was the dog that got me used to the idea that a dog could lift his upper lip like that and not mean something bad. Funny how we run into what we need just before we need it sometimes; a couple years later when Shanti had passed over and I adopted Trooper, I knew exactly what his goofy grin was all about.
Is it a grin? I mean to ask, is it a facial expression or could it be the result of trying to inhale more glorious scent ? 😉 . Wrinkly nose = smell better = as a result pulling up the upper lips = smile? Just wondering…
Here is Noah very happy about himself and definitely smiling!
The photo was taken after he jumped into my arms on a cue: “give me a hug!”.
He was just super happy performing the trick 🙂
I came across this today http://doodlemum.com and thought you’d get a smile out of it. (The slide show from Dec. 23, in case you see that later.)
I had a ‘propeller tail dog’ who also did grin from ear to ear. My current dog frm the shelter who was very anxious when we got him, does neither, but he talks with his eyes. (And by now voice and body, too).
I wish you very happy holidays and thank you for all the entertaining and enlightening posts on your blog.
Vicky in Boise says
My border collie, Jem, was a smiler. It happened when he was greeting me as well as when he was happy. He smiled so often that his nickname was “Smiles Alot,” to which he responded. Jem was also a circle wagger. He has been gone many years, but I still miss that smile.
Caitlin Waverly says
My severely mistreated Chabrador rescue began wiggling submissively towards the familiar from the start, eventually lifting her upper lip while wiggling. She was praised to the high heavens for showing what we called her “pretty girl smile” & eventually began giving us her “Farrah Fawcett” smile (we’re talking the full width of both rows of teeth:- ). Her toothy smile has only been briefly misinterpreted once in almost 5 years:-) If I had a picture, I’d post it.
A smile can be interpreted as such in every language:-)
RE: “At least, raising our upper lips like a dog as a threat is not very common,” I’d argue that the sneer of contempt and other fangy human threat displays are only “uncommon” because overt threat displays in our (prevailing, American, in my case) culture are themselves uncommon. Baring upper teeth in a sneer or a smirk or a grimace I think accompanies (serious, physical) aggressive intent more often than not.
More refined and abstract sorts of threats are of course accompanied by a mere thin smile and tightening around the eyes, haha.
I’m sooo late to this! But am doing some research after discovering hardly any dogs “Smile” where as my collie cross smiles all the time!! Everyday! She does it for attention or when she wants something. It never seems to be from fear or submission (unless being told off!). She does the “smile” and “talks” while sneezing when she is feeling sprightly…its quite a display! I’ve filmed it dozens of times! She does however do the “guilty smile” if I’m telling her off. She wont make any sounds, just smiles and looks down at the floor. So I think there is a submissive smile and a happy playful smile!
I rescued my dog monkey from Rincon Puerto Rico when she was 8 weeks old. I’m interested in knowing more about the ‘smile’ because she does it so often. She was the runt of her litter and is a very submissive dog. Very sweet, a little shy but very friendly. She has a purple tongue so we think she has some chow and possible Australian shepherd in her — among,what I assume to be, many other breeds! Monkey smiles and sneezes when she greets people or other dogs that she knows. For example when I come home from work her smile, with top lip curled is accompanied by frequent sneezing, wagging tail and bowed head. This makes it evident that this is a happy gesture! I remember being nervous the first time she did it when I brought her home thinking there might be something wrong with her! My dog walker did tell me that this is also something wolves do when they greet members of their pack. Would love to know anyone else’s findings on it!
I had to research this when I first saw my new puppy’s grin, because I couldn’t figure out what the heck I was seeing! All her mannerisms when she does it are submissive, so I wondered what was with the teeth! Thank goodness for the internet.
My other dogs never did it, but with my little girl, it’s definitely an appeasement signal. In the conformation ring last weekend, she was a little intimidated by the judge, and gave a little grin during the teeth exam, conveniently enough.
She’s a Belgian Tervuren, and they do tend to be smilers. But this is the first time I’ve seen anything quite like this “submissive grin.
Gerald Fruehwirth says
Dogs are so expressive, honest and open. Our Tinkle actually smiles when I kiss the side of her lips. As a Chihuahua and Toy Terrier mix and Tried colour it melts your heart to see this. Love and trust
I had a miniature Pinscher we got as a puppy. She was a little terror until we went through a couple obedience classes with her. In one, the trainer told me to “smile when she looks up at you. Give her something to look at.” Lol. I did. A big cheesy smile and I swear she learned it from that. She’d only smile when very excited- like when I would just arrive home and she was happy to see me. She would also sometimes squeal with happiness. Other people with the same breed said they smile also. She was my favorite dog. I miss her.
My Golden-mix smiles every time I come home, oh of what appears pure joy. This blog was helpful because I have never had a dog that has done this and it’s nice to know that it is common. He’s a silly boy, so the weird smiling fits him well!
Hali Vargas says
My new dog, a two-ish yr old black mouth cur (ish) female “Basil” gives a lopsided “grin” with top lip on one side pulled back and teeth showing. The context is 100% happy excitement with a bit “overestimulated” thrown in. Usually happens upon getting out of crate (a crate she likes and naps in frequently on her own) in the morning, so the context seems to be seeing us and getting morning greetings and attention. Also happens when preferred humans come over.
Interestingly it didn’t happen until after a few weeks of living here, so it does seem rooted in comfort and “happiness” at seeing people she likes.
It’s funny as he**. She looks like she is losing her mind –tail is wagging and she’s running between the humans demanding pets and scratching. All with an Elvis-esque lip curl. 🙂
Dave Bias says
My female goldendoodle Zola regularly smiles when greeting me or my daughter. Full on body wag and the helicopter tail going full blast as she comes down the hallway to the front door.
There is no way she is acting submissive in my mind and my daughter is away at college for months at a time and when she comes home you can hear Zola seemingly cry with joy at her return.
When she smiles Zola also wiggles her nose side to side too. I’ve seen a lot of retrievers mentioned doing this so maybe it’s something she got from her mom?
Thanks for writing this post. It’s great to hear about so many dogs that smile at people. Our Rat Terrier Poodle mix started smiling at people when she was a few months old. It seemed like she was trying to make friends. Much like how we smile at people when we meet them for the first time. She also smiles at us when we come back home if we leave her home alone. It doesn’t come across as submissive in any way, just really happy. The smile is accompanied with a lot of wiggling and tail wagging. The funny thing is she sneezes every time she smiles, but not when she is showing her teeth as a warning. You can see her smile here. https://happyoodles.com/2021/02/can-a-dog-smile/