What’s Behind Your Jack’s Smile?

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We’ve all seen it. We all love it. That special Jack Russell Terrier smile. The photographic evidence is all around. And yet there are still those cynical souls who insist that dogs don’t think or feel, and that their smiles are simply a combination of an unrelated physical action and our wishful thinking.

Well, you don’t need science to tell you that dogs actually do have complex emotional lives. All the same, science does have your back on this.

And so does a group of neuroscientists from around the world.

Animals’ Emotional Lives: Science Weighs In

In 2012, a group of eminent scientists from around the world gathered at the University of Cambridge in England. The University of Cambridge, founded in 1209, is one of the four oldest universities in the world, and one of the most respected. The scientists hailed from a wide variety of brain-science fields, including neurobiology, neuropharmacology, neuroanatomy, neurophysiology and computational neuroscience.

And what they wanted to find out was, do animals have consciousness — that is, are they aware of their own existence? And do they have emotional lives as well?

The Results

The results of their studies will surprise no one who has ever loved a pet.

Yes, the scientists found, animals possess consciousness. They are aware of themselves and of others.

The scientists also found that animals, including birds and invertebrates, do experience the same range and type of emotions that we do.

Finally, the scientists found that animals — like humans — act with intention, as well as on instinct, rather than on instinct alone, as some people believe.

As a result of their study, the scientists wrote The Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness. You can read their statement here.


If this is true, why has it taken so long for people to figure it out?

The problem, the study puts forth, is that people don’t always read animals’ communication signals correctly. A dog may be working very hard to tell us something, but we just might not be fluent enough in dog-speak to know what they’re saying. Some signals may come through loud and clear — like the demand for a belly-rub — but others may go right over our human heads.

But What About That Smile?

What we perceive as a smile is kind of a gray area. I know. It’s strange to look at an obviously grinning dog and think that smile might mean anything else. But then again, none of us is a native speaker of dog.

Sometimes, granted, a smile is an actual smile. According to the ASPCA, when a dog is feeling mellow, its body language will be relaxed — and that includes the muscles around the mouth. When a dog is feeling content, those muscles may relax, slide back, and look like a smile. But that’s a far cry from being analogous to the primate smiling gesture.

Teeth-baring can also be a signal that your dog is feeling tired, annoyed, or aggressive.

But then again, I think we can all tell the difference between a happy dog and a dog that’s annoyed.

It also helps to look for secondary signals. For example, blinking and squinting are a sign of happiness and even love. If your dog is blinking, squinting, has relaxed posture and is sporting a little grin…then I think it’s safe to say they’re smiling at you.

What’s Behind Your Dog’s Smile?

If you’re paying attention, you’re probably more aware of your dog’s emotional signals than you might think. Is that smile actually a smile? Chances are, you’re right.

Featured Image: CC BY-SA, by Susan E. Adams, via Flickr

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