Do Dogs Smile? What Their Goofy Grins REALLY Mean

Smiling is a key way that humans communicate contentment, happiness, and affection. But do dogs smile, too? We had an expert explain.

Oct 19, 2023·10 min read
Do Dogs Smile? What Their Goofy Grins REALLY Mean

Smiling is a key way that humans communicate contentment, happiness, and affection. In fact, some studies even suggest that simply putting a smile on your face can promote positive feelings and emotions – a phenomenon known as facial feedback [1]. 

But what about those big balls of floof that we share our homes and our lives with? Do dogs smile, too? And if they do, what do those goofy grins, lifted lips, and squinty eyes actually mean? 

We asked veterinarian and PetLab Co. contributor Dr. JoAnna Pendergrass for a run down on whether dogs can smile, how canines communicate happiness, and simple ways pet parents can better care for their dog’s smile at home.

Can Dogs Actually Smile? 

Technically, yes – dogs can smile. This may look like a relaxed mouth and jaw, with the corners of their mouth turned upwards in a smile-like appearance. It may look a lot like a human’s smile. Some pups may smile with teeth. Others may hang their tongues out. So, it’s pretty easy to recognize this dog facial expression when you see it. 

But figuring out what a dog smile actually means is a whole different topic. Do dogs smile when they are happy and content? Do they smile or laugh when something is funny? Are they just reacting to what we do with our own facial expressions? Let’s dive into the research.

Do Dogs Smile When They Are Happy?

You may notice that dogs smile when they are doing things they enjoy. This might be during a game of fetch, a walk around the neighborhood, or a playdate with some friendly pups. Because of this, it’s easy to equate a dog’s smile with happiness.

“Dog smiles can convey happiness, but these smiles can also convey other feelings, like stress or fear,” says Dr. Pendergrass. “Like for people, dog smiles don’t always mean that a dog is happy.”

Research demonstrates that dogs don’t necessarily experience and react to emotions and stimuli in the same way that humans do. A study published in “Scientific Reports” revealed that dogs do NOT show similar facial movements as humans when reacting to the same “emotionally comparable contexts” [2]. 

This means that while dogs may change their expressions as a reaction to something that makes them happy, they don’t do it in the same way we do. 

Instead, a dog shows happiness signals with their whole body. Paying close attention to dog body language – not just focusing on a dog’s face and mouth – provides better insight into how a dog is feeling. 

“Happy dogs have a calm facial expression, along with a loose and relaxed body and wagging tail,” says Dr. Pendergrass. Dogs that are happy may also roll over and show you their bellies or do a play bow to try to get you to join in their fun. 

Why Do Dogs Smile? 4 Possible Reasons

A black and tan Collie dog sits to the right of the frame smiling with their chin tilted upward. They’re against a background of a field of bright yellow Daffodils.

So, if happiness isn’t the main reason for a smiling dog, what’s actually behind these adorable dog grins? The following reasons may cause a dog to look like they’re smiling:

They Are Reacting To You

Some researchers believe that dogs smile in response to humans smiling and laughing at them, a phenomenon known as laughter contagion

There’s even some evidence that the facial anatomy of dogs evolved through domestication. One extensive report in “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America” (PNAS) reveals that dogs’ facial structure (particularly their eyebrows) changed as a way to better communicate with us [3]

“Dogs have been by our side for tens of thousands of years and are masters at reading and responding to human body language and emotions,” says Dr. Pendergrass. “They have learned what body language to use to please us and make us feel happy around them.” 


A dog may look like they are smiling during a rigorous play session or an active walk, but the “smile” could simply be your dog panting. Happy panting typically involves relaxed muscles, an open mouth, and a tongue hanging out. 

While it’s nice to think that a dog is smiling because they really enjoyed a game of fetch, the truth is that they might just be trying to cool down and recover after an intense exercise session.  

Submissive or Anxious Behavior

What we perceive as smiling in dogs may actually be a sign of active submission. A dog who pulls the corners of their mouth straight back may be trying to show a person or another animal that they aren’t a threat. Your dog may even show this type of smile when they do something wrong as a way of trying to avoid a scolding! 

“If your dog senses you are unhappy, they will smile and display submissive body language to try to show that they’re not a threat to you,” says Dr. Pendergrass. “Dogs may also smile because they’re feeling anxious or stressed.”

To identify whether the “smile” is submissive, it’s important to pay attention to other dog body language cues. Look for hunched posture, a tucked tail, squinted eyes, looking away, rolling on their side, flattened ears, or lots of blinking. If a dog is displaying these behaviors along with a tight smile, it may be an act of submission or a sign of anxiety. 

A “Tooth Display” as a Potential Warning

A dog smiling with teeth may be a friendly gesture that some dogs use to greet their human companions. These affectionate displays will often be short, quick, and accompanied by wiggling body language and relaxed tails. 

But a dog that curls their lips back and shows their teeth with other high-stress cues like tense body posture, raised hackles, or a stiff tail may be telling you or another animal to back off. This is often the last warning a dog gives before displaying aggression. 

It’s especially important for pet parents to recognize the differences between friendly dog smiles with teeth and signs of aggression. If kids are present in the household, teaching them the difference is also key to family comfort and safety. Research shows that children, especially those between the ages of 4-7, misinterpret aggressive teeth barring in dogs as “smiling” and “happy” which can lead to dog-related injuries if not addressed [4]. 

We’ve Covered Smiling. But Can Dogs Laugh?

For us, smiling and laughing go hand in hand. One often turns into the other, and before you know it, you’re having a giggle fest with your friends or family. Will your favorite furball laugh, too if they happen to be in on the joke? 

It turns out, dogs don’t laugh – at least, not like humans do. Humans let out loud guffaws, cheesy chuckles, and howling hoots when they find something funny. But dogs don’t have the same sorts of sounds in their vocal repertoire. 

The equivalent to laughing in dog speak appears to be a specific sound that dogs make while playing. This “play pant” is a breathy, forced exaltation of air that dogs use to initiate play. “It sounds like “hhuh-hhah,’” says Dr. Pendergrass. And just like laughter reduces stress in humans [5], this “play pant” also seems to have a similar effect on dogs. 

In one study, animal behaviorist Patricia Simonet played recorded versions of these “dog laughs” for canines in an animal shelter and measured how it impacted their stress behaviors. The study showed that playback of this sound led to a decrease in dog stress behaviors and even initiated social behaviors in the dogs [6]. 

So, while dogs may not laugh like we do, they have their own vocal way of playfully communicating and socializing. 

Taking Care of Your Dog’s Smile

No matter what the reason is behind your dog’s smile, it’s your job as a pet parent to look after your dog’s teeth and gums. 

“Dental health is critical in dogs,” says Dr. Pendergrass. “Nearly 80 percent of dogs have some form of periodontal (dental) health issues by the time they’re 3 years old.”

If left unchecked, canine dental issues can have serious consequences including oral discomfort, tooth problems, and bad breath

Follow these tips to keep your dog’s smile happy:

1. Check your dog’s mouth at home. Become comfortable with checking your dog’s mouth and teeth at home. “Looking in your dog’s mouth regularly can help you spot dental problems early and get those problems treated before they become serious and uncomfortable for your dog,” says Dr. Pendergrass. Just make sure your dog is agreeable to this type of at-home exam.

2. Don’t skip regular veterinary check-ups. Your veterinarian is your best source when it comes to taking care of your dog’s teeth. They can spot potential issues in your dog’s mouth before they become major problems. Keep your preventative exams on the calendar and make sure to discuss dental care at your appointment. 

3. Keep up with at-home dental care. Daily dog teeth cleaning at home is essential for supporting your dog’s dental health. If your dog tolerates tooth brushing, make sure to use dog-safe products and incorporate it into your daily routine. For dogs who get stressed during tooth-brushing sessions, a dog dental powder like ProBright Advanced is easy to mix with your dog’s food and helps freshen breath and target tartar buildup. 

4. Observe your dog’s lips and gums. Your dog’s teeth aren’t the only part of your dog’s mouth that needs some TLC! Regularly check your dog’s gums and lips for any signs of redness, swelling, or discomfort. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, contact your veterinarian for advice. 

5. Make dog dental care fun and rewarding. If you’re looking to clean your dog’s pearly whites between brushings while also providing mental stimulation, try dental chew toys or edible dog dental sticks. These types of products are designed to work against tartar buildup and clean with special shapes and ingredients. 


  1. Coles, N.A., March, D.S., Marmolejo-Ramos, F. et al. A multi-lab test of the facial feedback hypothesis by the Many Smiles Collaboration. Nat Hum Behav 6, 1731–1742 (2022).
  2. Correia-Caeiro, Catia & Guo, Kun & Mills, Daniel. (2017). Do dogs smile when happy? – an objective and comparative study of dog and human facial actions in response to emotional trigger. 
  3. Kaminski, Juliane et al. “Evolution of facial muscle anatomy in dogs.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America vol. 116,29 (2019): 14677-14681. doi:10.1073/pnas.1820653116
  4. Meints, Kerstin & Racca, Anais & Hickey, Naomi. (2010). How to prevent dog bite injuries – Children misinterpret dog facial expressions. Injury Prevention. 16. A68. doi:10.1136/ip.2010.029215.246
  5. Akimbekov, Nuraly S, and Mohammed S Razzaque. “Laughter therapy: A humor-induced hormonal intervention to reduce stress and anxiety.” Current research in physiology vol. 4 (2021): 135-138. doi:10.1016/j.crphys.2021.04.002
  6. Simonet, Patricia & Versteeg, Donna & Storie, Dan. (2005). Dog-laughter: Recorded playback reduces stress related behavior in shelter dogs.   
Deidre GrievesD

Deidre Grieves

Deidre Grieves is a pet-industry writer and editor with over 15 years of experience working for brands including petMD, Chewy, and Great Pet Care. She’s currently the Director of SEO at PetLab Co. When not creating content about pets, she enjoys spending family time with her husband, two human babies, and Goldendoodle named Clementine.

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The information contained within this site is not intended as a substitute for professional medical or veterinary advice. PetLab Co. is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. If your pet has, or you suspect your pet has any medical condition, you are urged to consult your veterinarian. Medical conditions can only be diagnosed by a licensed veterinarian. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Results May Vary. Not intended for human consumption. Please consult your veterinarian regarding any change in treatment or supplementation.
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