Why Golden Retrievers Smile

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One of the most endearing traits of Golden Retrievers is their adorable smile.

But you might have wondered what exactly their smile means.

Is it the same as when a person smiles?

Are they really as happy as they look?

In this article, you’ll learn:

  • What a dog smile is
  • Why Golden Retrievers smile
  • How to know if it’s a smile or something else

What is a Dog Smile?

golden retriever smiling

Most experts agree that a human smile and a dog smile aren’t quite the same thing, but there are some similarities.

What we see as a dog “smile” is a wide, soft open mouth, maybe with a floppy tongue hanging out.

The eyes might be soft and gentle, or bright and wide open.

Because this mimics a human smile in some ways (minus the tongue!), we label it as such.

When people smile, it’s usually because they are feeling positive emotions, such as happiness, enjoyment or excitement.

Is this also true of dogs? 

Let’s find out!

Why Do Golden Retrievers Smile?

Golden Retrievers smile when they are feeling relaxed, content, playful or happy.

It’s an outward expression of how the dog is feeling, and both people and other dogs can observe that signal and understand the dog’s emotional state.

Human smiles have the same function.

You’d never know someone was feeling happy if they had a serious facial expression.

But when you see a smile on someone’s face, it gives you insight into how they’re feeling.

Of course, people can fake a smile, but dogs are much more honest with their emotions.

And when you see a smile on someone’s face, it can put you at ease and sometimes even get you smiling as well.

A dog smile communicates to other dogs how they are feeling, and can help the other dogs feel more relaxed and happy as well.

When a dog is smiling, it’s also accompanied by other body language signs that communicate they are feeling comfortable.

All of this can help put other dogs at ease and diffuse social tension.

A smiling Golden Retriever often sparks positive feelings in humans as well, and some pups may even learn that they can make you smiley and happy with their own smile.

Your own smile and affiliative body language may also trigger your dog to smile, as they are very in tune with human facial expressions.

When you’re happy, often your dog is happy too.

So in that way, a smile may also be a way that your Golden can connect with you.

Is It a Smile, Stress, or Something Else?

golden retriever smile

Sometimes your Golden might have their mouth open and tongue out because they’re feeling happy.

There are also other reasons that might spark what looks like a smile, but isn’t.

Heat & Thirst

Your dog might simply be panting because they are hot or thirsty.

A panting dog can look like they’re smiling and excited, but the facial expression is due to their physical state rather than their emotional state.

Dogs don’t sweat, so panting helps release heat and cool them down.

(This is why you never shave your Golden Retriever.)

Often a dog who is panting because they’re hot or have been exercising will have their mouth open pretty wide and their tongue sticking far out.

This allows them to cool more quickly.

A smiling Golden’s mouth won’t be open so wide; it’s more of a relaxed, loose mouth, and the tongue won’t be hanging out much, if at all.


A dog may also pant because they are stressed out, and this can be misinterpreted as a smile.

To determine if your dog is panting from stress, you’ll want to look for other body language indications, such as:

  • Pacing
  • Yawning
  • Ears back
  • Whites of eyes showing
  • Looking away

Sometimes the corners of the mouth are pulled back tightly, which doesn’t happen when a Golden is happily smiling.

Additionally, if it’s not hot and your Golden hasn’t been running around, then it’s more likely they are panting due to stress or anxiety.

A stress pant is often fast-paced, while a smiling dog’s panting is relaxed and slower.

There’s also a stress signal that is mistaken as a smile.

The corners of the dog’s mouth are pulled back and upward, resembling a closed-mouth smile.

However, this isn’t actually a smile, it’s a sign of a stressed or anxious dog.

A true dog smile will have a relaxed, soft appearance.

Submissive Grin & Snarl

A submissive grin can look like a smile, but is actually communicating something very different.

First, what is a submissive grin?

It’s where a dog seemingly “smiles” with their mouth closed, displaying their teeth as they lift up their front lips.

Here’s a video showing a submissive grin:

While it may sound similar to an aggressive snarl, it’s not a threat.

In fact, a submissive grin is a dog’s attempt to communicate that they are not a threat and to appease people or other dogs.

It’s often accompanied by a loose, wiggly body and tail, soft or squinty eyes, and a lower body posture.

In contrast, a dog who is baring their teeth aggressively in a snarl will show signs such as a stiff, rigid body, growling, raised hackles and staring.

You may have seen videos of “guilty” dogs doing a submissive grin after their owner discovered they raided the trashcan or shredded the couch.

This is because the dog can sense their human’s frustration and upset, and is trying to diffuse the situation and avoid a confrontation.

Some dogs might learn that they get a lot of attention when they submissive grin, and may do it more because it gets a positive reaction.

And others can even be trained to grin on cue.

A submissive grin isn’t super common, but it’s not unheard of within the breed.

Is My Golden Happy If They’re Not Smiling?

While a loose, relaxed smile is one indication that your Golden Retriever is feeling happy or content, there are plenty of others as well.

Just because your dog isn’t smiling, it doesn’t mean they aren’t happy.

As with everything, you want to look at your dog’s whole body language picture to determine how they are feeling.

Other signs of a happy dog include:

  • Soft, gentle eyes
  • Loose, wagging tail (Note: a low or high/stiff wag can indicate fear or agitation)
  • Relaxed ears
  • Generally relaxed posture
  • Wiggly body
  • Play bow (front end crouched, rear end in the air)
  • Soliciting play or pets

You’ll likely see some of these signs when your dog is smiling as well, which is just further indication that your pup is happy.

Who’s a Happy Boy (or Girl)?

If you’ve got a Golden, it’s worth taking time to become a canine body language expert.

This knowledge gives you a little bit of a superpower: knowing just how your dog is feeling.

It will help you know how to keep your dog happy and avoid stress or discomfort.

The book Doggie Language is a great resource, for both kids and adults, to learn what your dog is telling you through their body.

As a dog parent, you’re happy when they’re happy, and nothing feels better than seeing a smile on their face.

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About the author:

Alisa Healy is a professional dog trainer in the Chicago suburbs, with a wide range of training experience from shelters to in-home training to dog sports. She is a Karen Pryor Academy Certified Training Partner and is passionate about helping people and dogs live fulfilling, harmonious lives together.

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