Recently I was asked if dogs can smile. A great question – and yes of course they can – but unlike us, dogs don’t smile with their mouths and teeth but with their tail.
Actually, to be more accurate, a dog smiles with their whole body but the tail is the closest thing to a doggie grin we have – and it is by far the easiest to spot. There is nothing so wonderful as watching your dog wagging from sheer joy and love of life.
So… When a dog wags their tail, they’re happy, right? The answer is a definite maybe. Yes, when a dog is happy, their tail is relaxed, usually held at half-mast (depending on the breed/type), and it can be doing anything from waving contentedly to wagging furiously. This really is the same as our smiles when we are enjoying what we are doing with people we love.
But we don’t just smile when we are happy.
We will usually smile when we meet someone that we don’t know to indicate we are friendly and non-threatening. We smile to try and make people feel comfortable. When we are in a conflict situation or interacting with someone we don’t like or who intimidates us, we often smile to try and appease the other person and prevent things from escalating. We smile out of nerves or fear.
We smile lots of times that have nothing to do with happiness.
If you doubt it, do a ‘smile check’ – and see how many times you find yourself smiling in social situations, or just when out and about, at times when you are not actually happy!
It’s exactly the same with our dogs’ tails.
They can wag when they’re excited, fearful, frustrated, unsure, worried, stressed, appeasing, in pain – and of course, blissfully happy, having fun, or just content and relaxed with their environment and the people around them!
Many people get into trouble when they misread an ‘I’m really scared’ or a ‘I really don’t want to have to bite you but if you come any closer…’ tail wag for the wag of a dog is happy and friendly.
So how do you tell what a tail is saying? First of all, know your own dog. Every dog uses their tail in a different way, and if you know how your dog wags when they are happy, you will easily be able to tell if there is something wrong – in the same way, you get an instinct about ‘fake’ human smiles!
There has been a recent study from the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing that suggests dogs wag their tail to the right when they are with people they know and trust – and while fascinating (and related to using different sides of the brain for different functions) this research was only conducted on 10 dogs and all from the same breed. By studying your own dog as an individual, you will know if this is true for them.
A happy wag goes through the dog’s whole body – as a rule of thumb, the more the wag spreads through the body, the happier they are. The tail is relaxed and the rest of the body seems loose with no tension. Their eyes are soft, their mouth is either closed or else just gently panting, ears are held relaxed and they simply radiate contentment.
In contrast, a stiff upright wagging tail coupled with a stiff unmoving body (often coupled with a hard-eyed stare) – or a low between-the-legs wagging tail coupled with low body language (and possibly wrinkled worried eyes, or whale-eye) – are signs that your dog is anything but happy.
So, take your time to watch your dog. Learn what their tail is saying and how they use it in different circumstances – and you will be able to see when they are really smiling.