Are really dogs smiling at us?

We’ve all seen it at one point or another: a dog who appeared to be smiling. Lips pulled back, eyes and brow relaxed, maybe even tail wagging – of course that dog is smiling! Right?

The answer to whether dogs can smile or not depends on how we think about canine behavior – specifically the degree to which we project our human understanding of body language onto the behaviors of our dogs.
A well-accepted theory among dog behavior experts is that dogs smile because they know we humans love it. We see our dogs lounging on the rug with their mouths hanging open, lips pulled back, looking utterly satisfied with themselves, and we go ga-ga with praise and pets. Dogs probably also observe their humans smiling at them and among themselves; they know people smiles are inherently positive (at the very least, benign), and that they can communicate amicability by miming that behavior.
Given the way we understand dog cognition, the notion that the smiling dog has learned to smile from people – and does so primarily for people – makes a lot of sense. We can think of dogs smiling in the way we consider some dogs to speak words: we reinforce our dogs when they make any noise resembling a word and they continue to do it, but only we have assigned meanings for those words. The semantics of any vocalization our dogs make is lost to them, yet they will still project their voices in highly specific ways because they know it will elicit a positive response.
Is A Smiling Dog Really Smiling?

The Merriam-Webster English dictionary defines a smile (noun) as “a facial expression in which the eyes brighten and the corners of the mouth curve slightly upward and which expresses especially amusement, pleasure, approval, or sometimes scorn.” Human smiles can be involuntary, like when we experience a beautiful moment, or they can be entirely performative, like when we need a favor from someone we don’t like.

It’s safe to say that smiles are essential to the human body language vocabulary. We smile to manipulate other people as often and as naturally as we smile to connect with them. Why then shouldn’t dogs, who have spent the past fifteen millennia becoming masters of non-verbal communication with humans, be able to do the same?
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