Do Dogs Smile?
March 23, 2005 1:45 PM   Subscribe

My wife maintains that our dog smiles in response to being happy. I maintain that she smiles because she is panting (my dog, not my wife). I concede that there is a smile-like movement on the dog's mouth but, since she is part beagle and has a skin flap over her mouth, she is doing this to enhance her air exchange. Also, since she seems to pant more when she is excited, I think this "smiling" mechanism can be confusing because it happens on occasions when we would expect a smile. I'm not sure what evolutionary purpose smiling would provide a dog (or a cat for that matter…she thinks the cat smiles, too). My guess is that smiling in humans serves a sexual/propagation purpose and, since dogs spend their time with their noses up the ass of other dogs, this would not make sense. Maybe that's why they wag their tails? Anyone have any thoughts on this important matter?
posted by SparkyPine to Pets & Animals (16 answers total)
Cats, dogs and dolphins (or do I mean porpoises?) have clearly figured out that humans adore animals whose anatomy makes them appear to smile.
posted by scratch at 1:52 PM on March 23, 2005

It's not about sexual attraction -- smiles indiciate non-aggression and sometimes even a recognition of someone else's dominance. Smiling signals "I'm not a threat to you. I'm not going to challenge you. I like you." That facial expression functions the same way in dog society as it does in human society. Dog society is highly socially organized according to dominance and pack loyalty, so it comes in handy.

There's such a ton of research on this. I wish I had the time to look some things up for you. A dog expert was recently on Fresh Air -- you could check there. He called dogs 'social chameleons' and was basically arguing that they will absolutely whatever it takes to get fed, whether that means being accepted by another dog pack or accepted by humans. He was a little straight-up simplistic for me -- I mean, it's ridiculous to think that animals are soulless automatons and that human emotions are somehow more genuine or sincere -- but he was interesting. It was within the last 2 months. Good luck.
posted by Miko at 2:21 PM on March 23, 2005

Why Do Dogs Smile?
posted by lola at 2:22 PM on March 23, 2005

Going along with what Miko said, there has been recent research about cats and dogs and how their evolution has been interdependent on ours -- much of what they do is, in fact, an effort to get *us* to do something. They're not just communicating with other dogs or cats.

Some info here.
posted by occhiblu at 2:27 PM on March 23, 2005

Keep in mind that dogs don't speak so any answer is pure conjecture. And it's human nature to anthropomorphize. As Nietzsche said "Man created God is his own image," and if you reverse the spelling of the direct object and it's still an accurate statement.
posted by Mayor Curley at 2:35 PM on March 23, 2005

If dogs could smile, one would assume they could separate the lip-raising from the panting. My dog definitely looks like she's smiling after she gets back from a good walk/jog or a romp at the park, but it is never separate from heavy panting.

Yeah, she looks really cute when she's doing it and it makes ME happy, but it's anthropomorphizing to say she's smiling. A steady and wide tail wag is a dog's smile.
posted by pmbuko at 3:49 PM on March 23, 2005

Like pmbuko, my dog looks like she's smiling when she gets back from a walk or has been running and playing (as well as other times), but she also displays much less anxiety after these kinds of activities. There is also the fact that if I then put my coat on to leave the house without her she will stop panting and there will be a marked change in her facial expression (eyebrows furrowed, ears up).

While she may or may not be experiencing emotions in the way that I think she is, it is clear that there are specific facial expressions that mark her emotional state. As such, there is something disctinctly resembling a smile that correlates with her being "happy." To me, the fact that she smiles is not in doubt, but it's the idea of what I call happiness being like for a dog that I can't be sure about.
posted by spaghetti at 4:28 PM on March 23, 2005

remember, genuine smiles use different muscles than fake smiles, so don't just look at the mouth. Check out the eyes and other muscles in the face too.
posted by nomad at 5:12 PM on March 23, 2005

My cats smile. And Jane Goodall made it clear that observing emotional behavior in animals is neither anthropomorphism nor "anecdotal science" ;-)
posted by Shane at 5:45 PM on March 23, 2005

In general, animals repeat behaviour which "works" (i.e. gets them what they want or takes away what they don't want). If you reward a dog for "smiling" (with attention or treats or anything the dog likes, including social acceptance), the chances that the dog will "smile" again increase. Normally that kind of head-lowered, upper-teeth-bared expression is an appeasement gesture from dog to dog (the "dominant/submissive" aspect is not terribly relevant in my opinion, that kind of hierarchy is much more fluid than we like to think, and dogs are all about doing what it takes to get along), but if it's offered and rewarded, the dog may easily repeat it simply because it was rewarded in the past, and because it increased the good feelings between the dog and the person, and in that sense, it does become very like a human smile (a way to indicate affection and acceptance). Dogs are extremely good at adapting like this. Eye contact is another way dogs adapt very well, "hard" eye contact (staring) is generally considered aggressive by dogs, but dogs easily learn to accept and initiate "soft" eye contact (with a gentle expression) with people as a way to indicate attention and affection.

I do find it kind of ironic that it seems to me that the dog version of the smile (as offered to humans as I described above) is closer in intent to the human version than the human version is to the chimpanzee version (in chimpanzees it's normally a threat). I have definitely noticed that some breeds of dog tend to "smile" more than others, Dobermans and Dalmatians in particular seem to "smile" a lot.
posted by biscotti at 6:02 PM on March 23, 2005

Crap, hit post too soon.

in chimpanzees it's normally a threat

(or a sign of fear).
posted by biscotti at 6:04 PM on March 23, 2005

Cats don't have the facial muscles to truly smile, i.e. to turn up the corners of their mouth, or for that matter to make a lot of the expressions that their owners think they make. A lot of cat "expression" is just the cat holding its head at a different angle. I'm not 100% sure about dogs, but I'm pretty sure they have a similar lack of expressiveness.
posted by kindall at 6:33 PM on March 23, 2005

I thought I'd read that cats have more facial muscles than humans; the Intarweb is divided on this issue. The excellent The Tribe of Tiger has a story about a cat in a household of several that started, after many years together, getting abused and pushed around by the other cats. Eventually the owners realized that the poor cat had gone blind, and while still able to navigate the house by memory could no longer interpret other cat's facial expressions. They, in turn, would feel snubbed and got annoyed. I forget how it was resolved.

That said, while our two cats communicate with one another a great deal, it's not by voice. They talk to us all the time, but not since they were kittens do they talk to one another. So I'm totally in the "you can't take humans out of the equation" camp. Which, due to their greater domestication, can only be more true for dogs than cats.
posted by Aknaton at 7:53 PM on March 23, 2005 [1 favorite]

Human facial expressions are completely universal... according to ekman at any rate. Given the universality of it in humans... why would our fellow mammals be that much different?
posted by ph00dz at 8:37 PM on March 23, 2005

My Dalmatian would smile--upper lip raised, crinkled snout-- and then sneeze when she greeted me. Dodie Smith describes it perfectly in The Starlight Barking, the sequel toThe One Hundred and One Dalmatians
posted by brujita at 9:40 PM on March 23, 2005

A couple of links about dog facial expressions. I have a great picture (not online) of the dearly departed Jake the Wonderdog, amidst the garbage he had just plundered, grinning wickedly. Dogs show their feelings with their whole bodies, face included.
posted by theora55 at 8:41 AM on March 24, 2005

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