Dogs – you gotta love the way they communicate. They give you pleading eyes when you’re fixing dinner, thump their tails crazily when you come home and every once in awhile, they may even give you a real honest-to-goodness-all-teeth-showing smile. If you’ve seen a dog do this and mistaken it for teeth bearing, you’re not alone. It looks exactly the same! But it’s actually a not-so-common behavior called submissive smiling.
Submissive smiling is a dog’s way of saying, “I just met you, but I humbly respect you.” They use the submissive smile to communicate to other dogs and humans alike that they are not interested in fighting, they want to be friendly. It’s easy for people to mistake a submissive smile for an aggressive one. This is so unfortunate because the message the dog is trying to convey is really the opposite. Our hope is to spread the word about this behavior so potential adopters won’t dismiss a dog displaying their pearly whites, but instead, take a closer look.
You can distinguish a submissive smile from an aggressive one by reading accompanying body language. Submissive body language includes a low-hanging tail, a raised paw, laid back ears, eyes glancing off to the side and a generally relaxed body posture. Contrarily, submissive smiling can also be accompanied by fast-paced, over-exaggerated motion. Submissive smiling is not a very common behavior – if you see it, you’re lucky! You’ve just witnessed a hardwired behavior, dating back to the dog’s wild and ancient ancestors.
Evidence indicates that all dogs are descended from a single species of wolves that lived in Northern Europe more than 10,000 years ago. Wolves, being pack animals, have a strong social structure with a clear hierarchy. To survive, wolves were either dominant or submissive and they have a whole range of cues and behaviors to communicate this.
It has been stated that a confident alpha dog will rarely display the submissive smile. Norwegian dog trainer Turid Rugaas identified more than 30 body gestures that dogs make in social settings – whether with members of their own species or with humans – that, she postulated, demonstrated intent to get along with other “pack members.”
So, if you’re in the market for a new furry friend, don’t get intimidated by the one flashing his pearly whites. He’s really saying, “I like you! Pick me!”