The internet is chock-full of dogs smiling…at least that’s how many pet owners perceive their dogs’ facial expressions, which resemble a human smile. But do dogs really smile? Or is it just another case of personifying our canine friends and we should stop?

If they really do smile, does it mean the same thing that a human smile does? Could what we see as a sign of joy actually mask other feelings, or even an emergency medical situation?

Chauncei, the German Shepherd, appears to be ecstatic celebrating her birthday.

Chauncei, the German Shepherd, appears to be ecstatic celebrating her birthday.

Ask any pet owner and they will tell you it is well-known that dogs do show happiness outwardly, but science has proven they don’t necessarily use their mouths. When a dog feels genuinely at ease, he may actually position his mouth in a way that truly resembles a smile. But he might make such a face when he’s not really at ease, too.

Body language can be an effective gauge of how at ease a dog feels. Happy dogs have a general looseness to their bodies, and that applies to the mouth area, too. If the sides of your pooch’s mouth point slightly higher than the rest of it, that often — but not always — signifies that all is wonderful in your dog’s world for the moment.

More telling is your dog’s tongue.

A loose-hanging tongue combined with a mouth slightly ajar generally points to good moods in a doggy, according to the Humane Society website. Although dogs don’t actually smile like humans, they sometimes happen to make expressions that look like smiles.

A smiley expression in a dog doesn’t necessarily indicate happiness. If your dog’s mouth is open just a tad, with the sides raised, he may indeed look like he’s smiling, but he may actually be anxious, nervous or otherwise in distress. Signs of distress accompanying a stiff smile include heavy panting with the tongue in, whining and chattering teeth. Consult your vet.

A dog may also give the false impression of smiling in subordinate situations, according to the ASPCA. If a dog is threatened by another animal or human that he feels is higher in ranking, he may attempt to show his subordination by raising his lips in a nonaggressive display. It’s a different bearing of the teeth than an aggressive one, and dogs know the difference. It has the appearance of a smile, but the poor pooch is scared. Look out for other “hints” of subordination, including crying, pushed back ears and a hanging head. Make sure the upper portion of the doggie’s snout isn’t crinkled. That sometimes is a belligerent body language signal to back off.

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