Is a Smiling Dog Showing Aggression?

By Linda Cole

One of my dogs, a Terrier mix named Sophie, was a smiler. She would curl up one side of her lip and wiggle all over, grinning if we asked her to do something she didn’t really want to do or when we talked to her in our “You’re such a good girl” voice. I called it her “Elvis” smile because that’s what it reminded me of. It was so cute and always made me laugh. If she was in trouble, which was rare, I quickly forgave her transgression. As it turned out, Sophie knew exactly what she was doing, and it worked. A smiling dog might be showing aggression, but not always. Sometimes, a smile is just a smile; it’s a way some dogs convey they are not a threat.

When it comes to understanding a dog’s body language, everyone recognizes that a snarl with teeth bared means to back off and leave that dog alone. When Sophie smiled, she was showing deference to us with a submissive grin. The difference between a snarl and a submissive grin is broadcast loud and clear in a dog’s body language.

When a dog submits, he lowers his body closer to the ground, and may cower. His tail is tucked to one side, but never between his legs like with a fearful dog. His ears are held out, resembling airplane wings. He holds his front paws up, avoids eye contact, might roll over on his back, and may urinate to signal his compliance to you or another dog. When a submissive grin is added, you see excited body movements and squinting eyes. An aggressive dog isn’t going to roll over and expose his belly to someone or another dog he views as a rival. Everything about his body language says he’s on alert and ready to fight, if necessary. A growl usually accompanies his snarl, but not always.

There’s a difference between a dog submitting and one showing fear. A submitting dog isn’t a threat, but a scared dog could attack out of fear. One clue is the position of his tail and ears. The submitting dog pulls his tail to the side, and holds his ears out to the side. The fearful dog tucks his tail between his legs and he has “whale eyes,” meaning you can see the whites of his eyes, and his ears will be pulled back against his head. His overall body language says he’s scared. All he wants is to be left alone. Never turn your back on a fearful or aggressive dog. Watch them without making direct eye contact.

Sophie gave us her submissive smile if she thought she was in trouble, but she also flashed it when she was greeted by other people. However, when she realized she received positive attention for smiling, she began to do it at other times, as well. In the beginning, she smiled if she felt stressed to show she wasn’t a threat, but learned to use it to her advantage. Because it was cute, I admit we helped her along with some tasty CANIDAE TidNips™ treats when she gave us a smile.

If you like seeing your dog smile, there’s no harm in encouraging the behavior and adding it to his repertoire of cute tricks. When your dog starts to smile, give him a command such as “Smile” or “Cheese” and reward him immediately after he smiles.

Some people and children mistake a submissive grin as a snarl, so if you have a dog that greets visitors with a smile, it’s a good idea to let them know before meeting your pet so they won’t misinterpret his intentions. His smile is part of who he is as an individual. You can’t stop him from grinning in situations where he feels threatened, but you can redirect his attention if he’s uncomfortable when greeting people. Engage him in a game of fetch or tug of war, give a command like sit, or ask him to perform a trick. Using play or a treat to refocus his mind takes him out of a stressful situation to one where he feels more comfortable.

A submissive grin has nothing to do with aggression. It’s one way some dogs show their friendship to the people they love. According to Texas A&M University professor of Veterinary Medicine, Bonnie V. Beaver, DVM, and author of “Canine Behavior,” a submissive grin is most likely an inherited behavior, common in certain purebred and mixed breed bloodlines. So if you have a grinning dog, enjoy his cute and beautiful smile!

Top photo by Susan E. Adams
Bottom photo by Ginfox

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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The personal opinions and/or use of trade, corporate or brand names, is for information and convenience only. Such use does not constitute an endorsement by CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods of any product or service. Opinions are those of the individual authors and not necessarily of CANIDAE® All Natural Pet Foods.

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