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.