The internet loves photos of ‘smiling’ dogs. But is that dog really happy, and how can you tell? It’s important to know the difference between a stressed dog, an overstimulated dog, and a happy dog - both for your own safety and so that you’re not sharing incorrect information that could get someone else hurt. Before you scroll down, stop and think for a second - what do you think a happy dog’s face looks like?
If you answered soft eyes, slack mouth and lolling tongue, you’re right! Unfortunately, because we’re primates, humans are cued to see tension around the lips and exposed teeth as a ‘smile’ - and in dog language, that means something totally different. A quick google search for ‘smiling dog’ pulls up these:
None of these are happy dogs. All show signs of stress. The signs to look for are tension around the lips/edge of the mouth, nose wrinkles, bared teeth, hard or squinted eyes, ears held farther back on the head, and overall tension. The last photo is probably an appeasement behavior, and the second is definitely fear with a potential for aggression.
Let’s look at some dogs showing happy smiles! Here’s the first google image for happy dog that I got:
Much better. Doesn’t that look like a happy animal? The skin around the mouth is relaxed, the mouth is open, the eyes are soft and there’s no tension in the face.
Now let’s look at some slightly more complicated examples, starring Elisabet's Spike and Lindsey's Ace. It’s important to know the animal you’re viewing when you try to figure out if it’s happy, because each animal uses different body language.
Here’s a great photo of Ace being super happy and smiling:
Erect ears, soft eyes, soft edges of the mouth (even though it’s open because he’s panting, they’re not pulled back tightly), loose face, hanging tongue without tension. In contrast, here’s Ace when he’s very overheated, but still smiley and happy. You can see that his face is still pretty soft even though it’s stretched because he’s panting hard.
Contrast that with this last photo of Ace below - this face isn’t a smile. Note how much tension there is in his face, especially around the eyes and the corners of the mouth. The tongue is pretty tense, too. Lindsey describes this photo as him being overstimulated and very intense, fixated on her hand.
So that’s a good example of how different dogs show stress/intensity/smiles differently. Lots of people would say that the third photo of Ace is a smile and the 2nd might be stressed, but it’s actually flipped, according to his owner. Remember - the more tense the muscles of the face are, the less likely it is to be a smile.
Let’s contrast this with Spike! Here’s a great photo of him being relaxed, adorable, and happy.
Notice the soft eyes and face and lolling tongue.
Now compare that to the photo below. In the second photo, his tongue is lolling more but there’s also a little more tension around his eyes and pulling back the corners of his mouth. This isn’t a doggy smile, it’s a combination of overheating and stress. My big giveaway on calling that is looking how far back the corners of his mouth are pulled, because it’s more tension than would be necessary with his mouth open to pant that way.
Here’s a photo of Spike when he’s just plain overheated from a long summer walk and not stressed - you can see how his face is a lot softer than the photo above, and there’s not as much tension in his lips.
TALK ABOUT THE SHIBA
This concludes dog smiles 101! Basically, look for soft features and a loose tongue. Check to see if the amount of tension around the lips is about the amount needed for how open the mouth is (and it’s not a smile if the mouth is closed). Eyes should be soft, ears should be wherever they normally sit on the dog’s head when it’s active and alert.
I’ll leave you with a photo of my surrogate baby, Avalanche, and his killer dog smile.