Do Dogs Smile? Decoding Your Canine’s Grin

Do Dogs Smile? Decoding Your Canine’s Grin

Your dog’s mouth is wide open. The corners of their lips are curved upward as their tongue hangs out. Their tail is wagging. Is this your dog’s way of smiling? 

Some experts think it is.

But do dogs smile in the same way as humans? Well…not exactly. Experts say there are critical differences between dog smiles and human smiles. However, dogs do display distinct expressions when they’re feeling happy, playful, submissive, or aggressive — and each of these expressions could be interpreted as “smiling.”

Let’s explore these different types of doggy grins.

Do Dogs Smile?

Search for “smiling dogs” on the internet, and you’ll find thousands of images. Dogs giving wide-mouthed grins. Dogs with goofy, toothy smiles. Dogs curling their lips up and baring their teeth.

While there are differences in opinion about dog smiles, most experts agree that dogs can smile — or at least display facial expressions that look like smiling. Dogs might smile when they’re feeling happy, playful, docile, or scared, experts say.

“Dogs do have facial expressions to indicate joy or happiness that resemble the smile that people display,” says Dr. Audrey Weaver, a partner Doctor at Heart + Paw in Glen Mills, Pennsylvania. “Whether they refer to it as a ‘smile’ or not in the dog world remains unknown.”

However, dog smiles should be differentiated from human smiles, says Dr. Gabrielle Fadl, the director of primary care at Bond Vet in New York City. “Dogs do not have the same facial muscles as humans, so their smiles may look different. Additionally, dogs may use their smiles to communicate different emotions than humans do.”

Dr. Cátia Correia Caeiro, a senior researcher at Leipzig University in Germany who studies cognitive capacities of different species, says she believes the equivalent of a human smile doesn’t really translate into dogs.

“When we think of smiling in humans, it’s when the lip corners are retracted, the lips are apart, and we may see the teeth,” says Dr. Caeiro. “If we apply this to dogs, that is not a smile. Dogs only show this facial expression in aggressive or fearful situations.”

Okay, so dog smiles are a little different than human smiles. So, what exactly is a dog smile then? And what does a grinning dog look like?

What Does a Dog Smile Look Like?

Before we explore what a dog smile looks like, let’s discuss the different types of dog smiles experts have identified.

Nicholas Dodman, a professor emeritus at Tufts University and the chief scientific officer at the Center for Canine Behavior Studies, says there are at least three facial expressions that could be interpreted as a smile on dogs: 

  • A submissive grin
  • An aggressive expression
  • A play face

Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these.

Submissive Grin

When dogs display submissive grins, Dodman says their eyes are bright, and their lips are retracted. ​​”It looks just like a human smiling,” he explains. “The sides of the lips — the commissures, which is where the top lip meets the bottom lip — are pulled back, exposing the teeth.”

Aggressive Expression

However, when dogs raise their lips vertically, their expression changes to aggression, says Dodman. “If a dog lifts his lips to expose his teeth, but the lips are being elevated in a sort of north-south direction, maybe with noise or without noise, that is a threat,” he warns. “That means watch out.”

Play Face

Then there is the play face, which Dodman describes as a “curling over of the lips” accompanied by a puffy face and other signs of a happy dog. 

Additionally, Dr. Fadl says dogs can display a relaxed expression that could be interpreted as a smile. These smiles are defined by “a relaxed and open mouth, with the tongue often hanging out to the side,” she says.

Why Do Dogs Smile?

So, we’ve gone over the way a dog’s smile can look. But what does it mean when a dog smiles? That depends on the type of smile, experts say.


Dodman says a dog’s submissive grin signals deference and appeasement. “They’re saying, ‘Don’t worry about me; I’m not a threat.”

Dr. Caeiro notes dogs may display submissive smiles when they think their pet parent is about to scold them. “This particular facial expression in dogs has been talked about quite a lot in the general public and the scientific community due to the viral videos of the ‘guilty dog,’” she says. “In these videos, owners mistakenly think their dogs are feeling guilty because they know they have been ‘naughty,’ and so should be scolded.” 

She adds that research has found that dogs smile submissively “because they are scared and are reacting to potentially aggressive cues in the owner while trying to appease the owner.” [1]


Again, when dogs curl up their lips in a north-south direction and expose their teeth, it’s a sign of aggression, says Dodman. This type of body language can be a sign that a dog might lunge, snap, or bite.

Dr. Caeiro mentions it can be particularly challenging for children to read the signs that a dog is about to become aggressive, so adults must carefully monitor dogs for such signs. ​​“Children might think dogs are smiling as humans smile,” she says. “This is a problem because many of the bites happen because children are not so good at reading a dog’s subtle signs.”


When dogs display a play face, Dr. Caeiro says it can signal to other dogs and humans that they — you guessed it — want to play. But dogs might also show the same expression when meeting humans or greeting their owners after a long absence — a finding documented in Dr. Caerio’s own research. [2] “A smile in a dog would be this kind of face,” she explains, “but it’s not really appropriate to call it a smile because, in humans, it’s not really the same facial expression.”

Do Dogs Understand Smiles?

Research suggests that dogs can understand the smiles and emotions of their pet parents by analyzing their facial expressions. For instance, one study found that dogs have the ability to discriminate between different emotional expressions in humans. [3]

“They are sensitive at recognizing our facial expressions, but they are also very attentive to our body gestures and postures,” says Dr. Caeiro. “They do look at the face, but they spend more time examining what we are doing with our bodies and hands, and this makes sense because dogs communicate a lot with their bodies to each other, more perhaps than the face. They also can recognize emotion in our voices.”

Dr. Weaver believes that dogs may even be purposefully smiling in response to humans smiling, mimicking our facial expressions. “Dogs are very observant and notice that smiles are often used when humans communicate joy to each other,” she says. “I believe when dogs smile, in many cases, it is to express their joy using human ‘language.’”

Smiling Dog: Tips and Advice

Be aware of body language

The biggest tip our experts have for pet parents is to always be aware of your dog’s body language.

When you see your dog smiling, look at the other body language signs to interpret their emotions. Is your dog smiling while happy? Or are they baring their teeth because they feel scared or anxious? 

According to Dr. Fadl, a happy dog may have a “wagging tail, relaxed ears, and a soft gaze” and may vocalize in a cheerful tone and engage in playful behaviors. On the other hand, an anxious or fearful dog may display “raised hackles, a stiff body, or avoidance behaviors.” Keep in mind that anxious or fearful dogs may also wag their tails, although they are more likely to demonstrate a stiff, tense tail wag instead of a happy, relaxed wagging tail. 

It’s important to remember that dogs are individuals and “may display different behaviors and body language signs based on their personality, history, and environment,” Dr. Fadl says. 

Checking in with an expert, she adds, can also help. “It is always a good idea to consult with a veterinarian or qualified animal behaviorist if you have concerns about your dog’s behavior or well-being.”

Recognize anxiety and stress

If your dog is anxious or scared, Dr. Weaver says it’s crucial to remove them from the stressful situation. “If possible, take them on a calm walk to help reduce their stress level, allow them to lay down away from the stressful environment, offer treats while away from the stressful environment,” she recommends. “Do not force a greeting with a pet that is exhibiting signs of anxiety, as it can lead to aggression.”

While every dog smile is different, we can be sure of one thing: there is meaning behind each of our dog’s expressions. It’s up to us to figure out what that meaning is. 


  1. Horowitz, A. “Disambiguating the ‘guilty look’: Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour.” Behavioural Processes, Volume 81, Issue 3 (2009) Retrieved from: 
  2. Caeiro, C., Guo, K. & Mills, D. “Dogs and humans respond to emotionally competent stimuli by producing different facial actions.” Sci Rep 7, 15525 (2017) Retrieved from:
  3. Mueller, C., Schmitt, K., Barber, A. & Huber, L. “Dogs Can Discriminate Emotional Expressions of Human Faces.” Current Biology (2015, February) Retrieved from:

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