What Your Dog’s Facial Expressions Really Mean
No one questions the special bond you have with your furry best friend, but do you fully understand everything your pup's trying to tell you? You will now.
Your dog is bilingual
All animals possess an innate ability to communicate with their own species, the doggie behavioural experts at Wag, a dog-walking and information site, tell Reader’s Digest. But over the course of thousands of years spent with humans, dogs have acquired the ability to communicate with humans in a way that humans understand and encourage. That’s why one facial expression can mean two different things, depending on whether your dog is interacting with you or another dog. Here’s what your dog’s adorable face is trying to tell you.
That soulful gaze
A perfect example of the dichotomy between dog-to-dog versus dog-to-human facial expression is eye contact. Between dogs, eye contact signals aggression, explain the Wag experts. Between humans, eye contact is an integral part of communication. Humans reward eye contact from humans as well as dogs. Dogs have acquired this understanding and use their gaze to win approval from and show love for their humans.
Breaking eye contact
Part of communication via the eyes includes breaking eye contact. Dogs stare at each other until one or the other breaks the gaze—and a fight could break out. With humans, dogs are perfectly comfortable breaking eye contact, and in no way is it a prelude to trouble. Rather, it indicates a comfortable rapport between a dog and his person.
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Blinking or squinting during eye contact
If a dog blinks while making eye contact with you, he may be contemplating what you’re thinking, according to Dr. Danielle Bernal, a veterinarian with Wellness Natural Pet Food. This is particularly true if you’ve just given a command. The same is true of squinting during eye contact, says Michael Schoeff, the proprietor of Premier Pups. “I’d read it as a sign of appeasement,” Schoeff advises. “And that’s a good thing. Your dog lives to appease his human.”
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Squinting or blinking in general
Squinting and repetitive blinking may mean something entirely different when a dog is not looking into your eyes, Schoeff explains. Squinting can signal pain or illness. Rapid blinking can indicate stress or fear. And when a dog opens his eyes wide at another dog, it can signal aggression.
When your dog raises one eyebrow or both while making eye contact, it’s a sign of alertness and interest, says Schoeff. Here’s an opportunity for you to engage with your pup, maybe teach him a new trick.
Avoiding eye contact
A dog who avoids eye contact is likely having trust issues, Schoeff says. “Dogs are aware that eye contact with humans signals trust and comfort,” he explains. A dog that avoids eye contact with humans is doing his best to avoid any kind of interaction, whether negative or positive. We see this sometimes in dogs that have recently been rescued from bad situations. When these dogs finally are able to make eye contact, it’s incredibly rewarding.
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That adorable head tilt? It’s exactly what it looks like, according to Schoeff: It means your dog is curious.
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When your dog lowers or bows his head while gazing up at you, it’s an act of submission, explains Schoeff. It’s not all that different from blinking or squinting during eye contact; consider this a sign of a healthy dog-human relationship.
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Watch it: This isn’t a good sign. If you see a dog pulling both ears tight against his head, it could be a sign of aggression or of fear. Alternatively, it could be a sign your dog has an ear infection, says Schoeff.
Yes, a yawn could indicate tiredness, Dr. Bernal tells us. But it can also be associated with moments of stress.
A dog who is licking his lips can be communicating a desire to submit to his human, Dr. Bernal tells us. Or it could indicate anxiety, depending on the context. If nothing anxiety-provoking is happening at the moment, consider it a positive form of doggie communication.
Smiling or grinning
Yes, dogs do smile—although it doesn’t signify happiness, contentment, or agreement. When a dog lifts up his lips to show his canine teeth and incisors, it’s a sign of excitement, says Dr. Bernal. This makes sense when you consider that pups tend to smile while out on walks or romping with pals at the dog park. A doggie-grin could also be a sign of submissiveness, but that’s usually when they’re signaling to other dogs, not humans.
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It doesn’t take a dog behavioural specialist to recognize when your dog’s “smile” is more of a “snarl,” says Dr. Bernal. But when your dog pulls his lips up vertically to display his front teeth while also wrinkling his muzzle, he’s angry—especially when he raises his ears up and stares steadily. There’s a good chance a growl is coming.
In humans, we understand the difference between a smile and a grimace. The same applies to dogs. When your dog draws his lips back horizontally so that you can see all his teeth, it indicates discomfort or fear, Dr. Bernal explains. This becomes even more obvious when it’s accompanied by ear-flattening.
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When in doubt, consider Fido’s body language
Doggie facial expressions should be read in context, points out certified dog-and-cat behaviourist and trainer, Russell Hartstein, CDBC. For example, a “smile” might indicate fear or aggression if the dog’s ears are flat or he’s growling or whimpering. But a smile on a relaxed and wiggly dog signals that all is good.