Dolly, your loving Dalmatian, loves to smile. She flashes those pearly whites to you every day. At first, you thought it was disturbing, but she seemed so happy with that flashy grin. It has always been a great conversation starter when you have company over. You wonder if all breeds do this with their owners or if Dolly is a unique soul. Her smile has become a regular occurrence in your household. You question if her smile should ever be concerning and remain curious about the history behind Dalmatians and their quirky grins. So you delve a little deeper and explore.
The Root of the Behavior
Dalmatians smile for many reasons, including to appease their owners, to show respect, and to display excitement as well as frustration. Usually, this behavior is nothing to be concerned about and may be accompanied by content body language like a wagging tail, a relaxed face, and short yaps. But sometimes Dolly’s exposed teeth could be a warning to back off. Dolly’s flashy grin goes all the way back to her early ancestors from 10,000 years ago. Dogs used to roam in packs, and they knew their places in the doggy hierarchy. Smiling was a gesture of submission to the alpha dog. This means that if Dolly appears relaxed and non-aggressive then shows you her chompers - most likely she's trying to give you respect and understands that you are in charge.
The notorious Dalmatian smile also goes back to the breed’s history with firefighters. Back when fire stations used horses and carriages, Dalmatians ran in the front to ward off predators. They also guarded and kept the horses calm when they reached the fire. When the horse and carriage upgraded to a firetruck, the Dalmatians became more of a mascot and companion to the firefighters. What does this have to do with Dolly’s somewhat creepy grin? Dalmatians would sometimes smile at the various people in the station who would provide positive reinforcement throughout the years. Dalmatians would also flash those chompers to protect the horses back in the day. Now Dolly might even smile out of respect when first meeting someone or to let them know to leave her alone. Dolly’s submissive grin can appease either a human or another animal she meets. Think about it - when you smile at someone, usually that other person relaxes and welcomes you. A friendly grin tends to break the ice and shuts down potential aggression.
Encouraging the Behavior
Although Dolly’s smiling sounds like it’s usually non-threatening, there are times when Dalmatians smile out of aggression. Unfortunately, this breed has a reputation for not being the best breed with children, so Dolly might lose patience with the neighborhood kid who keeps chasing her and snarl at him. This scary grin might freak the kiddo out. Dalmatians that are not allowed adequate time to exercise to release their energy can also become destructive. During these times, what appears to be a smile could be a sign of annoyance, and aggression could follow. Dalmatians also display characteristics of independence and stubbornness. You might even notice that when you redirect Dolly away from something she’s passionate about, such as her tennis ball, she flashes that grin. You sense that this is not out of love, but a warning to not interrupt her.
This is why it’s important to know the difference between a submissive and aggressive smile. You can differentiate between the two by observing Dolly’s accompanying body language and taking note of the current situation. A dog offering a gentle and submissive smile will show relaxed facial muscles and a downward tail. She might also appear to be excited or chill. On the other hand, a dog’s aggressive “smile” may be accompanied with clenched teeth, snarling, and a high straight tail. You’d be face to face with an irritated canine that appears on edge and about to pounce. It’s vital to know the difference between these toothy gestures so that you know whether to encourage the smile or run for the door.
Other Solutions and Considerations
One concern for Dalmatians is that they can show aggression when ill and can be destructive if they are not offered opportunities to let out energy. But once you know if the smile’s submissive or not, Dolly's happy face can be a reassuring gesture of obedience, love, and playfulness, or a reassuring acknowledgment that she knows that you're in charge. Dalmatians are excellent companions, but they do get agitated when separated from their owner, and Dolly might expose her teeth during these times. Dolly can also become defensive if anyone messes with you so she may flash those teeth when she notices someone invading your space. Dalmatians are very active and intelligent dogs which can result in an agitated smile when they are under-exercised, or just plain bored. If you’re Dalmatian flashed a submissive, happy smile and harms no one, then you may want to encourage the smile through positive praise - similarly to what the firefighters have done in the past. If Dolly flashes her pearly whites on demand during game night, she'd be the free entertainment.
You now realize that Dolly’s smile is usually nothing to be concerned about because she tends to have a relaxed demeanor and displays traits of excitement when she shows her off her chompers. However, you do know that it’s important to watch out for her funky grin when she appears agitated. You’re glad she's rarely aggressive, but she also has an independent streak that you acknowledge. You’re fascinated by Dolly’s history with firefighters and admire how they put Dalmatians energy to good use in the past. You decided to take up running again, and Dolly comes along. Because of this, she’s even in better spirits around the neighborhood children. You continue to find Dolly’s happy, submissive grin hilarious. Her timing for flashing those smiles to your friends on game night still remains spot on!
By a Retriever lover Amanda Clark
Published: 05/30/2018, edited: 01/30/2020