You may be one of the luckier dog owners in the world if you've witnessed your dog smile. It's not the most common trait in canines, although it seems to be becoming more prevalent in recent years. Often times dog owners will see this behavior when their pooch is trying to cuddle with them. While animal behaviorists have come up with an awful lot of theories as to why this behavior has started to occur more and more frequently, the verdict is still out as to what exactly causes this emulation of a distinctly human feature. Some individuals still question if the “doggie smile” is even purposeful at all!
The Root of the Behavior
One of the earliest ideas for why this behavior occurs is that it has been trained into dogs more often than ever before. The idea here is that every time a canine did this accidentally, the behavior was rewarded. Once the connection was made between "smiling" and receiving attention or treats, it probably began to take off in popularity. Dogs are actually quite adept at understanding these kinds of positive feedback behaviors in humans. Their partnerships with us over the years have directly contributed to this ability.
Another idea is that smiling is an instinct that has existed in dogs for thousands of years. Facial expressions may have been an important component of communication for ancient canines. Since it tends to parallel what humans consider to be a positive expression, it makes sense that as time has gone on they have found a secondary use for this batch of instincts.
It is also entirely possible that your dog is staring at you to gain attention. While sometimes a stare from a canine can be a sign of aggression, if you are dealing with your own dog it is more than likely a call for attention or play. A great way to help you understand exactly what your dog is trying to say is by paying close attention to his body movements and postures. If you notice that his head is down and there is not much movement, it could actually be that he is in pain and trying to indicate this with every tool he has available to him.
Conversely, if your dog's posture is playing and lively while he is smiling, he may be trying to get food! Your dog's salivary glands are regularly pushed into overdrive, and smiling is a natural reaction to that. Best to do him a real solid and get him some kibble, on the double!
Encouraging the Behavior
If your dog's smile tends to come when he's calm and collected, with a wide open, toothy grin, this is a really good sign. It means that your dog is quite content, and is showing it in the most obvious way possible. If this is something you really enjoy from your dog, you can help train the behavior into him so that it happens more regularly. If you catch him smiling, give him a reward! This will help dramatically in pulling out the kind of behaviors you want.
Smiling was originally an instinctual behavior that showed when a canine was feeling anxious or nervous. Baring teeth for ancient dogs was a way to show that things weren't quite right. A lot of animal experts are still convinced that the positive reinforcement of this behavior over so many generations of canines is why it even exists as a behavior today.
Your dog can really be smiling for myriad reasons, not all of them good. If you notice that they tend to exercise this behavior only when in new environments, it may be an indicator of perceived predators nearby. Your dog’s anxiety is something that can cause a lot of problems as time goes on, so make sure to try and solve these issues as they occur, rather than putting them off until that “next trip to the vet."
Other Solutions and Considerations
Some possible causes to always keep in mind with any change in facial behavior that you aren't familiar with are dental pain or mouth issues. Sometimes a tumor can make your dog perpetually keep his mouth slightly open. They could be in a fair amount of pain in a situation like this, so it's best to both pay attention to your dog's dental health as well as get regular checkups with your family veterinarian.
Your dog's behaviors will always be a great set of indicators as to what they’re feeling, provided you pay close enough attention. Do your research, ask a lot of questions, and always make sure to give your good boy enough attention.
If your dog is smiling, it is more than likely a nice little bonus he is bringing into your life. A healthy, happy canine will tend to smile only when he feels content, which means as an owner you are doing it right! And you know what they say: "If they tend to grin, always let them in!"