The viral video linked below made the rounds in 2019. Its titles on the major purveyors of cute animal videos were variations on the same theme, such as “This Adorable Puppy Wouldn’t Stop Smiling in Her Shelter Kennel,” “Smiling Dog in an Animal Shelter,” and “Dog in an Animal Shelter Couldn’t Help but Smile after Finding Out She Was getting Adopted.”
But the pup wasn’t “smiling” from happiness. Her facial expression meant something else.
She was scared.
Look at the short video.
Here’s what I see:
- The puppy huddles at the back of an enclosure.
- At the beginning of the video, her front legs are braced, pushing her backward.
- She blinks and squints repeatedly.
- She looks away and turns her head away several times.
- Her ears are pulled back.
- She pulls her mouth back into a “grin” that is associated with appeasement.
All of these behaviors demonstrate stress.
At the end of the video, the puppy starts to venture forward.
What do these behaviors really tell us?
Dog Smiles Are Different from Human Smiles
If you see a dog with its mouth closed (or almost closed with teeth showing) and the mouth corners (commissures) drawn back, the dog is likely stressed. This behavior usually is associated with social anxiousness. Ethologists agree that it generally signals something like, “Don’t hurt me; I’m not a threat.”
The pup in the video is also showing other signs of stress: blinking, squinting, looking away, and flattening back her ears.
But we humans are wired to respond positively to anything that looks at all like a smile. We assume it indicates happiness. This pup has facial features that combine with the submissive grin to create a mouth that is upturned at the corners. It’s cute, but not a sign of joy.
There is one smile-like behavior that happy dogs do. That is the openmouthed smile you can see in this photo of my dog Clara when she was a teenager. Her mouth is open and the corners of her mouth are pulled back a little but not harshly so. Her forehead is smooth and her eyes are soft. Can you see how much more relaxed she looks than the pup in the video? My friend and coauthor Marge Rogers always says to look at the lower jaw. When it relaxes and the mouth falls slightly open, the dog is almost always comfortable and happy.
To see comparisons of dogs with stressed grins and happy grins, check out my post, “Is That ‘Smiling’ Dog Happy?”
For another type of deceptive dog photo, take a look at my post, “Dogs Who Love Each Other (Or Don’t).”
Hope for the Puppy
I almost titled this post, “Terrified Puppy Smiles.” It would make for better clickbait, but I don’t believe the pup is terrified. We are not seeing flight, freezing, or trembling. This pup is scared, but she is also exhibiting pro-social body language. Depending on her age, her fear is concerning. But there may be time to mitigate it before the socialization window closes. The pup was showing some tentative tail wags and already moving toward the human at the end of the video. Hopefully, she will come to be comfortable and happy with her new family and the world.
We humans usually find appeasement behaviors by puppies adorable. This has probably given pups who exhibit them a survival advantage over the thousands of years our species have hung out together.
But my jaded self has to wonder why the sound was not included with this video. I hope the people weren’t deliberately pressuring the pup. The siren song of getting a viral video can cause people to do some pretty crude things to animals. There is a whole genre of videos of “dogs who are grateful/happy after being adopted.” Most of them feature dogs who are stressed out, unfortunately. The publishers of this video (not necessarily the pup’s adopters) were probably going for that genre.
What Dog Body Language Experts Say about Grinning
Barbara Handleman classifies the canine grin as a behavior of active submission (Handleman, 2008). She points out that the submissive grin can be affiliative or agonistic. That means the grinning animal may want to approach and interact, or it may want to get distance. She has photo examples in her book of different submissive grins:
- wolves, page 10 (crouching, tail lowered, ears flattened)
- dogs, page 78 (affiliative, distance decreasing)
- dogs, page 175 (with paw lift, stressed)
- wolves, page 260 (active submission, soliciting interaction)
- dogs, page 263 (submissive grin with play bow)
Some other experts classify the submissive grin as passive submission rather than active submission. Dr. Michael Fox might classify this puppy’s grin as a “greeting grin,” also a signifier of appeasement or submission, because of the closed mouth (Fox, 1972).
Veterinary behaviorist Karen Overall discusses grinning behavior in her book, Manual of Clinical Behavioral Medicine for Dogs and Cats. She describes it as an act of deference and says the dogs are generally showing that they are not a threat.
This video is being shared as an example of a smiling, happy pup. The caption refers to the pup being happy that she has been adopted. This is a damaging form of anthropomorphism that’s pandering for a “feel-good” story. We as a species are hungry for these stories, and tend to look past the evidence that many are not just misguided, but faked. I hope the pup was adopted by kind and gentle people and I hope she is happy. But the behaviors in the video indicate stress and anxiety. The pup’s life will be much happier if her people realize that. The more we learn about canine body language, the better we can treat our best friends.
- Guess What! That Dog Video Is Probably Fake!
- Is That Smiling Dog Happy?
- Dog Facial Expressions: Stress
- The Look of Fear
- Another Look at a Fearful Dog
Addition 3/8/19: Response from the Owner
The adopter of the pup has commented that the pup is fine. She has elsewhere posted lovely photos of the pup, who is obviously more comfortable now. You can see her statement and my response in the comments on this post.
Dogs Don’t Smile, from the blog Border-Wars.
Fox MW: A comparative study of the development of facial expressions in canids; wolf, coyote and foxes. Behavior 1970; 36:49.
Fox MW: Understanding Your Dog. New York: Coward, McCann and Geoghegan Inc, 1972.
Fox MW: Inter-species interaction differences in play actions in canids. Appl Anim Ethol 1976; 2(2):181.
Fox MW, Cohen JA: Canid communication. In Sebeok TA (ed): How Animals Communicate. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1977, p. 728.
Handleman, B. Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook. Wolf and Word Press, 2008.
Overall, K. L. (1997). Clinical behavioral medicine for small animals. Mosby-Year Book, Inc..
Copyright 2019 Eileen Anderson
10 thoughts on “Shelter Pup “Smiles” from FEAR after She’s Adopted”
Thank you so much!
Thank you for the ways you have spread the word about this misinterpreted video and others that are detrimental to dogs!
I’ve had Australian Shepherds that “grin” when they have eaten my sunglasses and ones that “grin” seemingly for joy along with the wiggle butt when I come home. The breed seems to be known for it, but I am wondering if these are both appeasement?
I haven’t seen your dogs, of course, but I’ve seen dogs whose greetings often have some element of appeasement behaviors. I sometimes wonder if it’s just from any kind of pressure. Mom coming home can be a little stressful, even when the dogs are purely happy. Just thinking out loud. I’ve sure seen a lot of Aussie grins of all sorts.
If you have a fearful dog or simply want to learn more about them, I highly recommend Debbie Jacob’s Fearful Dog Facebook Community. She not only has a ton of resources there, but is more than generous with her expertise when someone has a question or concern. Her book, A Guide to Living with and Training a Fearful Dog, should be a “must” read for people who have a fearful dog.
Thanks for that recommendation, Janet. I agree completely!
y’all, we adopted her and she wasn’t in distress in this video. She actually does this in real life all the time. She’s fine, so just enjoy the article.
Thanks for reaching out and for your mannerly response. I know it’s hard to come under the scrutiny of the Internet, even indirectly.
I’m glad the pup is doing well and she looks happy and comfortable in the Dodo article about your adoption. The photo and videos of her at home are a big contrast to the behavior you filmed in the shelter. They also contrast with her adoption photo with you and your husband, where she still looks nervous. That’s no criticism of you; almost all dogs are a bit nervous when a new family steps forward and their life changes.
I’ll add an update from you about her in my post.
To my other readers: I’m not going to link to the Dodo article because the general misinformation they spread about animals—interspersed with good stories—is harmful. I’m sure you can find it if you are interested.
In the meantime, Nicole, please consider the larger effect of spreading a story about a dog “smiling” in happiness. No dog behavior expert or ethologist would agree with that assessment of the pup from the video provided. This misinformation about dogs causes harm to them. That’s the bigger message, here.
And indeed, your adorable picture (in the Dodo article) of her quirked up mouth while sleeping at home contradicts the idea that she was “smiling” at the prospect of adoption. As I mentioned in the article, she does have a mouth that tends to turn up. We humans have a built-in positive response to that. But we also can think beyond our instincts, although it can be super hard.
Thanks for adopting a shelter pup! I have no doubt she will be happy with your family, including your other rescue pets.
Thanks for sharing these tips and advice. From what I read our Golden Retriever has all the traits of a happy dog. Your article confirms he is very happy!
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