Submissive Smiling in Dogs

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Even though we eat, sleep and breathe pet adoption all year round, October is a special month because it is National Adopt-a-Shelter Dog Month!

Adopt-a-Shelter Dog Month is great because it gives us the opportunity to pause and re-focus a little more on dogs in shelters and how we can get more humans to adopt dogs in shelters.

Today, I want to talk about a behavior potential adopters may encounter when they are walking through the kennels at their local animal shelter.

We touched on submissive smiling a little bit in Stephanie’s Doggie Discourse: Smiles and Poses blog, but here is a little more information about this curious behavior.

Submissive smiling occurs when a dog pulls back their lips and exposes their front teeth, like Agatha is doing here.

chihuahua mix submissive smiling

Submissive smiling is often mistaken for aggression because a dog is showing you their teeth, but it is not a warning sign.  Submissive smiling is a dog’s way of saying “I just met you, but I humbly respect you.”  They use the submissive smile to communicate to other dogs and humans alike that they are not interested in fighting, they want to be friendly.

It’s easy for people to mistake a submissive smile for an aggressive one.  This is so unfortunate because the message the dog is trying to convey is really the opposite.  My hope is to spread the word about this behavior so potential adopters won’t dismiss a dog displaying their pearly whites, but instead, take a closer look.

You can distinguish a submissive smile from an aggressive one by reading accompanying body language.  Submissive body language includes a low hanging tail, a raised paw, laid back ears, eyes glancing off to the side and a general relaxed body posture.  Contrarily, submissive smiling can also be accompanied by fast-paced, over-exaggerated motion.  Submissive smiling is not a very common behavior – -  if you see it, you’re lucky!  You’ve just witnessed a hardwired behavior, dating back to the dog’s wild and ancient ancestors.

Evidence indicates that all dogs are descended from a single species of wolves that lived in Northern Europe more than 10,000 years ago. Wolves, being pack animals, have a strong social structure with a clear hierarchy. To survive, wolves were either dominant or submissive and they have a whole range of cues and behaviors to communicate this.

It has been stated that a confident alpha dog will rarely display the submissive smile. Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas identified more than 30 body gestures that dogs make in social settings – whether with members of their own species or with humans – that, she postulated, demonstrated intent to get along with other “pack members.”

An aggressive “smile” can be displayed when a dog is guarding a prized possession like, toys, treats or food.  Accompanying body language indicating aggression are raised hackles (the strip of fur down their back), growling, and a tail held high.

You can read more about different types of aggression in dogs here.

Do you have anything to add about submissive smiling? Leave a comment below.

5 Responses

  1. Jenn says:

    Nikki I have a Schnoodle too. He was a rescue and he’s always smiling. I have to admit it did throw me off at first, but he’s so kissy and cuddly I knew there was something else and not aggressive., but I never heard of this before. Good to know.

  2. Tamara says:

    My Malshi Onyx smiles with his bottom teeth I love it.

  3. Nikki says:

    I have a little schnoodle and he’s always smiling, or as we call it, “weird face.” He does this whenever he’s excited about seeing a person or when he’s about to get a treat. Always so funny to see!

  4. Sharon says:

    My Pepper has been doing this for 13 years and so did my previous rescues. I tried to let people know it was not aggression but a greeting. I am glad to know it was correct on my part. I am now a trainer and reading dogs other than mine so the reinforcement is great! Keep smiling puppies!!
    Keep putting out great articles.

  5. ruby says:

    my jack loves to smiling and my other dog sleeps with her eyes open and sleeps on her back