Remember the story about Little Red Riding Hood and her inability to tell the difference between her grandmother and the wolf? That failure (especially when it came to the infamous teeth) led to a rather “Grimm” ending for Little Red Riding Hood. (Sorry for the bad pun!) With our more contemporary canine friends, it’s also important to distinguish between a display of teeth that is a traditional warning versus one that may convey something very different (and far less dangerous).
Recently, one of our supporters sent us this link for a cute video about a “smiling” Golden retriever: “Funny Dog: The golden “smile-retriever”!” Watching this, I realized it was a very good example of what is called a “submissive grin,” a behavior that is often hard to capture in a picture or video. Gracie’s owners seem to have taught her to demonstrate this behavior on cue, which makes for not only an entertaining video but an instructive one as well!
Many people have never seen a submissive grin before and it’s very easy to mistake this expression for the wrinkled lips that accompany a canine snarl. I once introduced an adoptable dog to a family who had come to look at a different dog that wasn’t the right match for them. Mollie (the second dog shown) was fairly new to our program and I hadn’t gotten to know her that well yet myself. When she came into the exercise yard and ran up to one of the family kids with what looked like a snarl on her face I about had a heart attack. It was, in fact, just a submissive grin and once we got to know Mollie better we learned that her “grin” was a trademark characteristic of this sweet, totally gentle and loving Golden.
That experience reinforced for me how the differences between a submissive grin and a snarl can be quite subtle. However, once you are familiar with the submissive grin it’s much easier to know which is which.
Most importantly, a dog displaying a submissive grin is not a threat to humans; in fact, he or she is showing deference and – as indicated in the terminology – submission to the humans in the environment. There may be some anxiety or stress going on, but not aggression. In contrast, a snarl is definitely a dog’s way of saying “Back off…what you are doing or planning to do is making me very uncomfortable.” If not heeded, the dog’s next step may easily be a snap or bite.
To me, a dog displaying a submissive grin is reminiscent of a donkey braying, as undignified as that may sound. (Either that or the dog REALLY wants to show the dentist just how faithfully they’ve been brushing their teeth.) Kidding aside, it’s very helpful to look at the whole demeanor of the dog in addition to the teeth and mouth in order to understand what he’s “saying.” In this article about submissive grinning, the author notes that:
When a dog smiles or grins submissively, there is usually motion in the dog, often fast-paced over-exaggerated movements, squinty eyes, and overall excitement.
In addition, the behavior is often seen as part of a greeting ritual with people (or other dogs), whereas a truly aggressive dog is typically engaged in some other kind of behavior. The same article referenced above shows a video of a dog guarding a toy, with a lot of growling and lip curling indicating his unwillingness to give it up. (As the author notes, this video is definitely not one you’d want to replicate but it is helpful to watch it.)
“To Pet or Not to Pet,” an excellent blog post from Success Just Clicks, also has some great examples of canine body language that illustrate the key variations between submissive grinning and snarling.
If you’ve ever wondered just what the terms “squinty eyes” and “hard eyes” really mean, be sure to look at the side-by-side comparison of Denver and Sally in this post. It doesn’t get much clearer than this! Also scroll down and view the photos showing dogs who are inviting petting versus those who are disinclined to be petted; these photos would be great to share with kids as well.
Finally, take a look at this Vetstreet article by trainer Mikkel Becker, whose tips are super helpful for dog owners of all experience levels. Mikkel was answering a question from a puzzled reader: “My Dog Smiles When She Greets People – Is This Normal?” The information provided in the article is similar to what we’ve already covered, but in addition to reading it you HAVE to click on the link Mikkel included as her example of a “submissive grin.” It will take you to the video of a Goldendoodle that I guarantee will put a smile on YOUR face, just as it is on his. Enjoy and let me know if your dog’s expressions are equally giggle-worthy!