People have often said that when their dog first greets someone, they show all of their teeth and “smile.” Some visitors mistake this for aggressive behaviour, but the owners feel that the dog is just very excited and happy. So what is going on?

It sounds like this dog is displaying an appeasement gesture, called a submissive grin, to show people that she’s no threat. Submissive grins are a way for a dog to show deference to another individual.

Usually submissive grins are associated with increased movement and a body posture that is lower than the dog’s normal stance. There are other signals your dog likely uses, along with her submissive grin, to show deference, such as lowering her tail, lifting a paw, licking you, licking her lips and looking away or squinting her eyes.

Say Cheese!

The submissive grin is a tactic dogs use to shut off aggression from another individual, either human or canine. This behaviour is commonly seen in greeting situations where the dog is actively soliciting attention in a nonthreatening manner. Often the submissive grin invites interaction from others, but it’s also possible that dogs are trying to increase distance between themselves and others if they feel threatened.

It’s likely that these dogs have continued “smiling” at people because it’s gotten them a lot of attention in the past. You can actually turn a dog’s smiling into a trick by clicking and treating her every time she does it and adding a word to it, such as “say cheese,” just as they starts to smile, which will encourage more of their smiling if this is a behaviour you enjoy seeing.

It would be helpful to explain to visitors before they meet your beloved canine that smiling is a as part of their greeting sequence but is nonthreatening. You can even channel their greeting behaviour into another outlet, like a game of ball or a quick series of tricks they are asked to do, such as sit and down, as a way to redirect their energy away from greeting mode, where they are likely to smile, and into a different mode, like play or food acquisition.

If you doubt that your dog is smiling as a greeting behaviour to show appeasement, or if there is any possibility that there may be aggression involved in her behaviour, contact Kaleen Veterinary Hospital as we have a behavioural expert on staff who can discuss this with you.

This post was originally published in 2012