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Smiling Animals? Really?

By Edited Jul 13, 2015 0 2
Dog smiling
Credit: Sam Photos8.con via Wikimedia Commons

Ever thought you saw your dog smiling? It is well possible! Scientific studies suggest that this expression of joy is not exclusive to people but animals can also laugh. This was shown by a recent study of the journal Science.

Do animals have the ability to smile because they feel a particular emotion or is it just a meaningless gesture? What Ivan Pavlov used to call "conditioned reflex", referring to the happy face of a dog, now seems to have a new meaning as discovered by the lastest studies of emotional behavior in mammals. The neural circuits for laughter exist in the oldest regions of the brain, according to the psychologist and neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. It appears that thousands of years ago, before the expression in humans existed, there were already forms of laughter and games in other animals. This study from the University of Portsmouth showed that orangutans were the first to develop facial expressions that form the basis of laughter, which can be seen when they feel empathy and develop mimicry among them. Similarly, the researchers found that both rats and dogs laugh when they play with their own kind, and make sounds that are similar to when a human baby is having fun.

According to the vet Nicholas Dodman, who heads the team researching animal behavior at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University (Massachusetts), USA, mammals experience primary emotions such as fear, sadness, anger and happiness, and even secondary emotions such as jealousy and shame. They are also able to communicate those emotions. Dodman says that dogs even have a sense of humor and laugh with a kind of whistle. As cats’s mouths are naturally bowed, Dodman says it is somewhat confusing to define if they are really smiling, but they are emotionally sensitive and affectionate.

But this phenomenon is not only in mammals. Knoxville Gordon, a Professor of Psychology at the University of Tennessee, found that turtles also play, and he spread the idea that playing is also fun for animals other than mammals. On the flipside, it is used as a training to enable them to respond to the situations they will experience in their lives.

Although there is no absolute agreement among all scholars and researchers, most of them believe that the evolution in animals has led them to experience a range of feelings, including the simple act of smiling, in response to a stimulus.


In Japan they discovered a cute dog that smiles widely at the sight of its owner:

97 Ways to Make a Dog Smile
Amazon Price: $7.95 $0.01 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 13, 2015)

What about dogs recognizing our smile?

The normal way for dogs to express they are happy is by wagging their tails, and that’s what they would naturally understand as an expression of happiness, too. However, humans don’t have tails, they smile to show their positive feelings instead. A new study shows that dogs have learnt to identify our smiles, and therefore know when to celebrate happiness. It could very well be that they are the only animals that have been capable of this, giving them a clear advantage over other domesticated species.

Ham's false smile

It is a famous misinterpretation which dates back to 1961, when an experimental flight to the space took an astronaut chimp to the space and back.
Ham was collected in a Cameroonian forest after the death his mother. The young chimpanzee went through an intense training before being sent into the space. His return was quite tough, as the spaceship landed far from the original area. Ham was saved last minute from drowning. Some may remember the picture the animal when it went out of the capsule, the mouth wide open, showing his beautiful teeth. Officials understood that the mission had been a success, acoording to the smile they saw on Ham’s face!
We now know, thanks to Dr. Jane Goodall, that it was a rictus of terror, confirmed by the fact that Ham avoided from then on to ever put a paw in a capsule again. The fact was recognized many years later.

Oral hygiene of dogs

If you love your dog, you cannot forget his need for a good oral hygiene because it is not protected against caries, tartar, tooth loss and other gum problems. All these problems may translate into a change of their appetite, digestion and their overall health, change their behavior because of the pain, thereby affecting their quality life. So prevention is better than cure. In fact, besides the indispensable
medical supervision and appropriate care, there is also a range of specific products that are perfectly adapted to the teeth of our canine friends. In particular, dog toothpaste, which has nothing to do with those we use in terms of fluorine and the use of foam and mint (absolutely unsuitable for our four-pawed friends) can be applied with the help of a special toothbrush. A tedious chore? Not really. Rather a pleasant moment of complicity with the animal. There are also sugarless candies, gummies and toys that offer the advantage of cleaning the teeth without the need to struggle to get the dog to smile when he doesn’t really feel like it.

Animal Happiness: A Moving Exploration of Animals and Their Emotions
Amazon Price: $14.95 $3.06 Buy Now
(price as of Jul 13, 2015)


Jun 24, 2013 10:55am
Cool article. I had a dog, Roz, that definitely smiled when she was happy. I liked the part about dogs being able to recognize our smiles as expressions of happiness. It makes me wonder if dogs who smile learn it from their owners. Thanks for sharing this.
Jun 24, 2013 12:47pm
That's awesome! I really think there's some kind of "universal language of happiness". Even if your dog doesn't smile, you know when he/she is happy, so why wouldn't they know when we are happy?
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