OK, This Is Heartbreaking: A Dog's "Smile" May Not Actually Mean That They're Happy

by Emily Westbrooks

When you see a dog walking down the street, she will probably look vaguely happy. That's the beauty of a dog: It always looks somewhere between content and excited. Unless they're barking at you to stay away from their food, or growling at you, dogs are pretty chill beings and can often look (adorably) like they're smiling. However, dogs can sometimes look like they're smiling but actually not be feeling all that relaxed. You'll want to read up on how to tell if your dog is smiling, because it can be hard to tell.

You should be able to tell if your dog is happy from a few key signs, but he might not show you by smiling, though that is one possible indication. "A smile, with lips curled up" could be a way that your dog is telling you that they're happy, dog behavior expert Victoria Stilwel told The Huffington Post. But really, you have to observe the dog's entire facial and body language to determine if he's in a good mood.

If your dog's mouth is upturned into what looks like a smile, it could actually mean that he is anxious or in distress, according to Kristina Lotz, a certified professional dog trainer. She wrote in I Heart Dogs, "A dog with an open mouth that looks happy, could in fact be hot and uncomfortable or stressed, neither of which would be considered 'happy' by a human."

Instead, you'll want to assess the whole dog, not just his mouth, to know whether that's a happy smile you're seeing or something else entirely. If a dog is smiling and happy, she will "have ears forward or in the relaxed state for the breed, relaxed eyes, and a big wide open mouth, with tongue hanging out, sometimes panting too," according to Lotz. They'll be wiggly and loose, and you'll be able to tell how relaxed they are from their entire bodies and attitude.

Ears are apparently the key to a dog's soul. You'll want a doggy smile paired with relaxed ears in order to know you have a happy dog. However, "if a dog’s ears are pinned back, it could be a sign of fear or aggression," Dr. Rachel Barrack of New York City’s Animal Acupuncture wrote in PetMD.

Since you can't rely on a dog to speak and tell you how happy they are, you have to pay attention to the subtle signs. Dr. Barrack said, "Open mouth panting should not be confused with smiling, as this could be a sign the dog is stressed or overheated." Some dogs pant the majority of the time they're outdoors, so you'll want to keep an eye out if the temperature is warm or your dog is overexerting himself.

If you're not a dog owner, you'll still want to be cognizant of a dog's smile and what it means if you're out and about. The Dodo reported that "misinterpreting the expression could end up in a bad canine encounter," according to K.C. Theisen, director of pet care issues for the Humane Society of the United States. She explained, "A dog who has the open mouth, the tongue hanging out, and the wrinkly cheeks is not necessarily a 'smile' in the way we think of a smile." Of course, if you want to pet a dog, you should probably ask the owner first, to ensure that you haven't misinterpreted his "smile."

Smiling isn't the only sign your dog is trying to give to let you know that he's having an awesome moment. You can also determine your dog's mood based on her tail wag. "A broad wag is friendly," according to Psychology Today, and is a sign that your dog is pleased, "especially if the tail seems to drag the hips with it," the articled explained.

It might take a little more discernment to figure out whether your dog is actually happy when he's smiling, but it will be worth it when you figure out the exact combination that means he's a happy camper!