by Mariana Burgos
Before the pandemic, I was still teaching in school. Whenever I returned from work, our dog Milky would greet me with a smile. She would smile sweetly, exposing her teeth. There was a day when I returned home and she had damaged our sofa bed. I got so mad that I scolded her. As I was doing so, she looked at me and “smiled” with her ears and tail tucked back as if saying, “I’m sorry”. She looked so funny that my temper quickly dissipated. Ever had your dog smile at you, too?
Knowing your dog’s emotional state through their body language is pretty possible. Genuinely content dogs may display a general looseness in their bodies.
Different kinds of doggy “smile”
Dogs occasionally make smile-like facial expressions, yet they don’t actually smile as people do. Your dog could display specific behavior that give the impression he (or she) is smiling. When all of your dog’s teeth are visible, it’s usually a hint to back off. But not always. Take Milky’s case for instance.
However, you might also observe “smiles” in different forms after feeding your dog treats or petting him.
The facial expression we refer to as a smile is really just a signal that the dog is not posing a threat to the status quo. Since alpha dogs and wolf pack leaders view us as equals and have no need or desire to display subordination, they don’t actually “smile.”
Smile due to worry or anxiety or illness
A dog’s smile could also be a sign of another emotion, such as worry or anxiety. You might want to talk to your veterinarian if your dog is “smiling” while simultaneously panting heavily, whimpering, and chattering its teeth. (Sharon Parry, 5 Reasons Dogs ‘Smile’ and What They’re Communicating, 24 May 2022) Your dog may actually be suffering from heat stroke. The excessive panting is a sign that something is not well with your dog. Please bring the dog to the vet immediately.
Dogs cannot smile if they lack feeling because smiling is primarily an expression of emotion. A few decades ago, it was widely believed that dogs lacked feelings. However, current research employing MRI technology has revealed that the brain regions of dogs that regulate emotions and sentiments are the same as those seen in humans. We also know that when humans pet dogs, their blood hormone levels rise, resulting in higher quantities of the feel-good hormone oxytocin. Humans feel content thanks to the same hormone. (Emma Bryce, Are Dogs Really Smiling at Us?, 19 May 2019)
Additionally, several studies have shown that our pets do somewhat copy our facial expressions. Why not try to spend some time grinning if you have an intelligent dog that likes to imitate you? Make sure there are no distractions, then have your dog sit while you smile obnoxiously and say “smile” after.
Dogs continually monitor our facial expressions to determine whether or not we are satisfied with them. The majority excel at it. A smile is one of the ways that they will be able to determine whether or not their human friends are happy. They won’t necessarily understand a smile on its own, but they will understand what you’re trying to say! There is no proof that dogs think a smile from a person showing their teeth as a snarl. They are able to recognize this in other canines, but they are aware that humans interpret it differently.
It’s fine to be delighted by your dog’s smile and to use it to further your relationship with your pet. Make sure that you are not erroneously interpreting the dog’s emotions. When socializing with dogs that you don’t know all that well, this is very crucial.
You may assume that their smile indicates happiness. This is incorrect (with the ones that you’re not that familiar with); instead, they are trying to communicate that they are stressed out and don’t enjoy something. Stress in dogs can easily escalate into aggression and biting, which is concerning. This is likely the reason why children under the age of seven are involved in so many dog bite incidences. Stressed dogs don’t smile to invite people to pat them; instead, they indicate, “Keep away from me!” What is even more perplexing is that when a dog “smiles” under stress, the tail will also wag, which humans interpret as enjoyment. Unfortunately, it is not quite that easy. Dogs can also display aggressiveness by wagging their tails.
The issue with interpreting dog facial expressions is that because our study methods are frequently subjective and we have a propensity to anthropomorphize animals, it is highly likely that we will misinterpret what we observe from our pet dogs.
Although your dog might not feel happiness the same way that people do, you can still teach your dog to “smile.” And, maybe, just like with us, humans, this could also contribute to better the health and longevity of life of your furry friend-cum-family member.
About the Author: Mariana Burgos is a freelance artist. She is a solo parent for 14 years now because she is wife to a desaparacido. She and her daughter are animal lovers and are active in advocating not only human rights but the rights of animals as well.
This article also appears in the Manila Standard
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