My dog, Phoenix, is a sweet girl. She loves people and lives for back rubs and ear scratches. She loves meeting new people, but my dog has an expression during these interactions that sometimes will throw a person off completely. Her lips pull back and her teeth are gleaming for everyone to see. She is not baring her teeth, however, as so many people believe. She is not even annoyed! Phoenix is displaying what is called a "submissive grin".
An appeasement gesture
So, what is a "submissive grin," you ask? Also known as an "appeasement gesture," a submissive grin is a gesture that your dog uses to display to others that he/she is not a threat. A submissive grin is a way for a dog to deter aggression from both people and/or canines. The gesture is most common when the dog is first greeting someone. A submissive grin is described as an almost comical grin accompanied with squinty eyes and relaxed body posturing.
It is believed that though this is a motive to garner positive attention from others, it is also used as a defense mechanism. If a dog feels threatened by a person and/or canine, it is believed that the gesture is used to create distance between themselves and the other party. For example, puppies will express this gesture with older dogs to ward off aggression towards themselves.
For people who are unfamiliar with submissive grins, the gesture can be quite alarming, but a true submissive grin is nothing to be concerned with. It is always best practice that you explain to friends, family, and whoever else may approach your dog that your dog will display this behavior, but that it is a non-threatening gesture and there is nothing to fear. This can also be a teachable moment for children, who are not as aware of signals being given off through a dog's expression and posturing. Having them observe a dog's body language at the moment they display a submissive grin may help them to better recognize what a friendly body gesture is and how not to confuse it with a dog's aggressive body posturing, like snarling.
Dog body language
A submissive grin includes various gestures which helps a human determine whether a dog's reaction is one of endearment or that of aggression. A dog's complete body language is an important factor in understanding such behavior. Pay attention to both your dog's face and body when he/she begins to interact with other humans. With a submissive grin, a dog is usually not standing still; their body will be in constant motion, almost wiggling with excitement. Squinting of the eyes, a lowered tail, licking of you or of their lips, and a lower body posturing are all telltale signs of submissive grinning. Be aware that there are many expressions that humans confuse with smiles. For example, a dog panting, with a wide-open mouth, is not a form of smiling, like so many people believe. This does not signal a dog's "happiness" level; it merely is a process a dog does to cool itself down.
Like many aspects of dog behavior, it has been questioned whether a submissive grin is a trainable expression. The answer is yes, but it must be done with extreme caution.
Experts believe that dogs learn to 'smile' through mimicking and positive reinforcement. What this means is that dogs have learned through human interaction that smiling is an inherently positive trait, therefore they have learned to mimic such behavior. Whether a dog is actually smiling is largely up for debate. It is dependent on our understanding of dog behavior and whether humans are actually just projecting the concept of human body language onto our dogs in an attempt to translate a dog's reaction.
Taking your dog's reaction and turning it into a trick that can be done on command may be possible with positive reinforcement and proper training techniques. However, to avoid reinforcing behavior that could potentially be based off fear or anxiety, it is best to seek a trainer's advice and help when attempting to teach your dog this expression.
A submissive grin can look very similar to an aggressive "smile" or a snarl. It is important to acknowledge your dog's complete body language to determine what your dog is expressing. Posturing is a major determinant when it comes to decoding your dog's language. A submissive smile in a dog is when they show a full set of teeth, but their ears are pulled back in a gentle, relaxed manner. Most times this accompanied with a dog squinting his/her eyes. An aggressive snarl will appear much more unwelcoming, with the dog wrinkling their nose, their body taking on very stiff posturing, and an intense stare with pupils dilated. Whether the snarl is an expression of impending aggression or they are expressing agitation during a moment of resource guarding, it is best to remove your dog from a potentially dangerous situation immediately to avoid a bite.
Submissive grinning may be difficult for some people to detect. If you are unsure whether your dog is displaying this behavior, it is advisable to get the opinion of your veterinarian, a professional dog trainer or a behaviorist in order to determine whether the expression is pure appeasement or if there is a possibility that there may be aggression related to this behavior. These experts can help detect subtle cues within your dog's body language and behavior, which will aid in determining the cause of your dog's expression.