Do Dogs Smile And Laugh?
And how to tell if your pup’s happy 😁
Have you ever looked down at your pup during a long walk and noticed her bright, beautiful smile shining up at you? It’s enough to make your heart melt!
You might think she’s having the time of her life and expressing her happiness the same way you would, but have you ever stopped to think about if dogs actually can smile? And if they do smile, do dogs smile when they’re happy — or for other reasons, too?
To find out if those big smiles are actually signs of a happy pup, we reached out to Kate LaSala, a certified dog trainer and behavior consultant at Rescued by Training in Greenwich, Connecticut, and Dr. Jo Myers, veterinarian and DMV at Vetster in Colorado, for more.
Can dogs smile?
Your dog might look like she’s smiling, but it’s probably not in the same way you would do it out of happiness.
According to LaSala, your dog might actually be panting, which can look like a smile.
“Dogs can have an open mouth and relaxed body language that can look like they’re smiling, but this is more about the relaxed muscles in the muzzle and open-mouth pant than an actual smile, as humans perceive it,” LaSala told The Dodo.
Your dog might also smile because she learned the behavior from you, according to Dr. Myers.
“To be clear, smiling in dogs is a learned response, not instinctive,” Dr. Meyers told The Dodo. “Some dogs are better mimics of human behaviors than others, but it's not unusual for them to try out some of our human body language techniques and see what kind of response they get.” (Sort of like this dog who learned how to limp so that his dad wouldn’t feel so out of place.)
Why do dogs smile?
If your dog isn’t ‘smiling’ from panting, she might be smiling because she’s trying to make you happy. After all, dogs are super tuned in to our body language in general, even to a greater extent than we are.
“Just like a human infant, the response a dog gets the first time it smiles at its person is enough to cement the act into the dog's body language lexicon,” Dr. Myers said.
According to Dr. Myers, a dog smile consists of the same actions we use: lifting the brows, widening the eyes and pulling the edges of the mouth up and back.
“This isn't something dogs do naturally to communicate with other dogs, but they quickly learn how effective it is with us and deploy it with uncanny effectiveness,” Dr. Myers said.
Can dogs laugh?
While dogs obviously can’t laugh exactly like humans, dogs might express body language to communicate that they’re happy.
Just like when it comes to smiling, our dogs are super tuned in to our feelings and rely heavily on body language for communication. As a result, they’re amazing at observing our behaviors.
“Most dogs quickly learn that human laughter means good things are happening,” Dr. Myers said. “Subsequently, they like being around laughing people. Because they're so social, they are driven to participate in good things that are happening with their people.” That means a dog is likely to use body language that demonstrates happiness when around laughing people: a playful expression, smiling and tail-wagging.
“The actual act of laughing is a complicated social gesture, however, that isn't fully understood by human neuroscientists,” Dr. Myers said. “It involves a complex collection of breathing, facial movements and vocalizations, many of which a dog isn't capable of producing.”
However, A few dogs who happen to be exceptionally good mimics come pretty close with a combination of smiling and breathing modifications that sound like laughter. “This isn't common, though, and most dogs rely on using their native body language to share their owners' joyous laughter with tail-wagging, smiles and a play bow,” Dr. Myers said. “Some even join in the laughter by getting the zoomies (scientifically known as FRAPs [frenetic random activity periods])!”
According to Dr. Myers, natural inter-dog social interaction and body language (like what we see with wolves) doesn't typically involve laughter or smiles, but since our dogs are keen to communicate with us, they do their best to learn our language.
“As a result, our ‘bilingual’ canine companions share their joy with us in a variety of ways, including smiling and something pretty close to laughter,” Dr. Myers said.
How to tell if a dog is happy
According to LaSala, the key to understanding if your dog is happy (or uncomfortable) is to be familiar with dog body language and not just focus on one behavior — like if she’s seemingly smiling or wagging her tail.
“Contrary to common belief, a dog wagging its tail isn’t always because the dog is happy,” LaSala said.
According to LaSala, it’s important to look at your dog’s entire body when trying to figure out if she’s happy or not.
Common places to look at to understand your dog’s body language include:
Take into consideration her tail’s position and movement. A happy pup will have a loose, wagging tail that’s high in the air, while an uncomfortable pup might have a stiff or tucked tail.
Tucked ears that looked pinned back usually indicate that your dog’s uncomfortable. Look for neutral ears as a sign of happiness.
Soft eyes indicate happiness, while hard eyes indicate signs of aggression or fear.
An open, relaxed muzzle indicates a relaxed and happy mood, while a tightly closed mouth can indicate that she’s uncomfortable.
Her overall body posture
In general, a happy pup is a relaxed pup, while a tense pup isn’t so happy, so a relaxed posture usually indicates that she’s totally content with life.
Taking in body language as a whole and not just one behavior can really help tell you if your dog is comfortable or not.
So when checking in with your dog to see if she’s happy, that big smile could definitely be a good sign, but be sure to stay in tune with anything else she might be trying to communicate.