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how to teach a dog to smile

Say Cheese! How to Teach Your Dog to Smile

Training your dog to smile on cue is a cute and fun party trick for the intermediate to advanced trainer. You may have seen some viral photos of dogs showing off their pearly whites for the camera, so let’s talk about how to get in on the fun!

Remember, a smiling dog isn’t always a happy dog!

This trick requires a lot of comfort with dog body language. Unlike humans, dogs do not smile when they’re happy, which is why it’s an awkward trick for your pup to learn.

Generally, when a dog shows her teeth she’s doing one of two things:

  1. She’s showing you a “submissive grin”
  2. She’s snarling

Dogs will submissively grin when they’re nervous and trying to deescalate a stressful situation. It’s kind of like the dog version of putting your hands up. A snarl also will show off your dog’s teeth, but this isn’t a behavior you want to train your dog to do as a party trick! Instead, we recommend cuing your dog to smile with a whisker tickle. We’ll talk more about that later.

Dog Body Language Mini-Lesson: Different Smiles With Different Meanings

Before you proceed with this trick, let’s talk body language. Can you see the difference between the three photos below? One is a submissive grin, one is a snarl, and one is a cued smile. Let’s talk about each one in turn.

teach dog to smile

In the first photo from the left, the dog is scared and displaying a submissive grin. She’s sitting, which is a “calming signal” already. Think of calming signals like de-escalation tactics dogs use. Her ears are pinned back and she’s not leaning towards the photographer. Not all dogs will use a submissive grin – some prefer other ways of de-escalating situations.

smiled scared dig

In contrast, the middle dog is snarling as a stranger enters his home. His ears are not pinned back (often a snarling dog that means business will have ears forward) and he’s staring hard at the photographer. The dog is tense with body weight forward and a medium-high tail, more signals that this dog is not playing around.

angry dog snarl

You do not want to train your dog to do either of these this as a cute party trick. Your dog is uncomfortable, and as her guardian, it’s your job to make her feel safe. If nothing else, it will make it very difficult to tell when your dog is showing off a behavior, and when your dog is genuinely uncomfortable. You could even accidentally teach friends or family that a snarl is something to laugh at!

The third dog is displaying a cued smile. Yes, he looks a little funny. But that’s because his owner was careful to train the smile by tickling his whiskers to get him to lift his lip. His body is relaxed with neutral ears. That’s the technique we’ll go over today. If you’re lucky and diligent, you’ll be able to train your dog to do a bilateral smile instead of the half-smile shown below!

relaxed dog smile

You don’t want to be continually putting your dog in a situation where she’s snarling or grinning submissively. Instead, try to find another way to get your dog to show off her teeth without putting her in a stressful situation.

My childhood Labrador would lift her lip when we tickled her whiskers. Try to figure out a way to get your dog to show her teeth that’s not stressful for her. Before you attempt this trick, please be sure you know dog body language!

We’ve got a great guide here all about dog calming signals and how to recognize them – check it out if you need to brush up on your canine communication!

If you’re making your dog uncomfortable when attempting this trick, you may get bitten. Safety first – and this means ensuring your dog is comfortable! This handy little article talks more about submissive grins and snarls. Check it out before proceeding. If you want to get more into dog body language, I highly recommend this book, a photo illustrated handbook of dog behavior.

Basic Training Tidbits: 4 Key Things to Remember

  • Keep it Brief. Training is hard mental work for you and your dog, just like algebra class. Avoid wearing your dog out too quickly by working in 5-10 minute chunks, then taking a break. I often will break up training sessions by playing tug or fetch, going for a walk, or cuddling. I’ll spend about an hour total with my dog, but only half of that time will be actively training. She’s exhausted by the end!
  • Leave it on a Good Note. Try to end training sessions on a “high note.” It’s important that your dog enjoys trick training, so don’t end the session when everyone’s frustrated! If you’ve pushed too far and your dog is struggling, try to lower your expectations a bit and give her some easy wins. Or, you can always just ask her to sit, down, or shake – something easy, so that she can succeed before you call it quits!
  • Make Training Fun! This is really rule number one of trick training. If you and your dog are frustrated, then you’re not succeeding. Be sure to keep your training fun and positive. Don’t use punishment, force, or fear in trick training. You want your dog to want to train, and if you scream, shake pennies, or jerk her collar when she gets it wrong, she won’t want to train again tomorrow! Punishing mistakes will only make her less excited to learn. If you start getting frustrated, you can always end your session early and go do something you both enjoy.
  • Really Break it Down. If your dog is having a hard time, figure out ways to make the behavior smaller or easier. You can use these mini-steps to give your dog more of those “wins” mentioned above. If you can break the trick down into smaller steps, do it. I write down every small muscle movement and step that has to happen for my dog to do a task, starting with eye contact. Yes, go that small! Every small step is also a win for your training!

Along these lines, think of behaviors in increasing difficulty. Don’t forget that environments make things harder. If you want your dog to be able to smile for a stranger at a house party, you’ll have to work up to it!

When you were first learning to multiply, you probably wouldn’t be able to recite your multiplication tables if a stranger asked you in a crowded shopping mall. Don’t expect your dog to do the same at first.

How to Teach Your Dog to Smile

If you feel confident that you’ll be able to avoid forcing your dog to be uncomfortable, let’s talk about the nitty-gritty steps of training your dog to smile. If you’re still not sure if you’ll be able to tell the difference between a submissive grin, smile, and something else, spend more time reading on dog body language. I can’t say it enough: we do not want to make your dog uncomfortable. So do not cut corners and use a snarl or submissive grin as a “smile.”

Keep in mind that each step below is important. Each of these steps is also key to any good dog training – so take the time to master them! Using these same skills, you’ll be able to teach your dog all sorts of tricks.

Before you begin, gather up a clicker and a big bag of tiny, stinky, tasty treats. You can see our post on the best training treats for plenty of treat ideas!

Step 1: Charging The Clicker

Right now your dog has no clue what a “click” from the clicker means. Our first step is to teach him! You need to show him that the “click” from a clicker predicts a treat. In other words, it’s a little promise. You’re telling your dog “Yes, good dog. Now you get a cookie.” But first we’ve got to teach your dog that!

Trainers call this “charging” the clicker because it’s like charging a laptop – you can’t use it until it’s charged! Using the clicker is a very easy, 3-step process.

  1. Click the clicker.
  2. Grab a treat from your bag.
  3. Give the dog a treat.

Start in a quiet place, and don’t ask your dog to do anything. Just repeat these three steps over, and over, and over again. Later, we’ll add on step 0 – your dog has to do something you like! But for now, we’re just strengthening the click-treat association. Soon enough, the click will be like Pavlov’s bell for your dog! For more info, check out our article on clicker training.

You’ll know this is working when your dog’s gaze goes straight to your face or your treat bag when you click. That means he knows the click means a treat is coming, and he’s anticipating the treat!

When your dog knows that the clicker means, “Good dog, now you get a treat,” you’re ready to go! You can use a clicker to train your dog to do just about anything, so feel free to experiment! Just remember that the “click” is a promise to reward the dog for her hard work. Don’t forget to give her the paycheck (treats)!

Step 2: Cueing A Behavior

Most of the time, I train dogs by “capturing” the behavior. You can read a better description of this in our training post on how to train your dog to say I love you, but we’ll go over it really briefly here. This will help illustrate why capturing a behavior likely won’t work for this trick!

Capturing a behavior basically means you’ll click and treat when the dog does the behavior on his own. For example, I trained my parrot to yawn on cue by clicking whenever he yawned. Soon enough, he figured out that he had to yawn to get a sunflower seed!

This works well for behaviors that animals may do on their own, like sitting, lying down, chasing their tail, or going to their bed. However, dogs don’t naturally smile. This makes things harder. Instead, we need to do something that makes our dog more likely to bare her teeth at us without scaring, intimidating, or aggravating her. It’s walking a very fine line indeed!

We trained my Labrador to “smile” using a whisker tickle, just like the dog in the third photo above. When we scratched her gently in the whiskers around her muzzle, she’d lift her lips. We would tickle her whiskers, then click and treat when she lifted her lips. Eventually, she got it and would just lift her lips without the tickle.

Technically, this is not “capturing” a behavior because we used a physical stimuli to force your dog into a smile, rather than encouraging a natural behavior. However, the mechanics of the clicker remain the same. When you see your dog lift her lips, click and treat. Eventually, she’ll start lifting her lips as a way to earn treats.

Be patient with this step. Depending on your “click” timing and your dog’s savviness, this step could take 5 minutes or 5 weeks. It’s important to be precise with what you click for. If you are off by a second and your dog sneezed at that time, you could confuse your dog! She won’t know if she’s supposed to lift her lips, smile, break eye contact, or what!

Step 3:  Fading out the Physical Cue and Adding a Verbal Cue

Right now, you may still be tickling your dog’s whiskers for lip-lifts. That’s great! Now, let’s start adding in a verbal cue and fading out the physical one. In other words, we’re going to stop manually tickling your dog and we’ll instead start giving a command your dog needs to learn to respond to!

Start by picking out a cue. It could be “say cheese,” “smile,” or any other verbal cue you want to use for this trick. Now that your dog reliably smiles for whisker tickles, you can add in the cue just before the tickles. So now the sequence will look like this:

  1. Say “Say cheese!”
  2. Tickle your dog’s whiskers
  3. Your dog smiles, so you click.
  4. Grab a treat from your bag
  5. Give your dog a treat.

The new goal is to remove the second step from the process. We want your dog to be able to make the mental leap from the verbal cue to the action! Fading out the second step may take some time, but be patient! Start by just associating the verbal cue (say cheese!) as a predictor for the whisker tickle and stop whisker-tickling without the verbal cue.

Now, start making the whisker tickle less prominent. If before you had to scratch your dog for 2-3 seconds before a smile, start to only scratch for 1-2 seconds. If your dog doesn’t lip-lift, no big deal. Try again in 30 seconds. Your dog will now only get paid for lip-lifting if she does it with a shorter physical cue.

If your dog will lip-lift after only a second of tickles, now only give treats if she lip-lifts when you touch her without tickling. Then move backwards from there – go from a touch to a nearly-touch. Go from that to extending your finger. Go from extending your finger to no physical cue, if you’d like. But remember that the verbal cue stays the same!

If this is confusing, just remember that steps 1, 3, 4, and 5 stay exactly the same. All you’re doing is trying to fade out step 2 by making it less and less prominent. If you’re fine with needing a physical cue for this trick, you can totally skip this step! That’s what we did with my lab. She smiled on cue, but we kept the cue as a whisker tickle!

Remember that treats are payment. Try to only pay your dog for her best work as you make it harder, while making sure she doesn’t get frustrated. Once you’re happy with your results, though, just work on practicing the behavior in more challenging situations, like with guests over or at the park!

What If My Dog Only Bares Her Teeth When She’s Growling?

A whisker tickle just won’t work for some dogs. Since you don’t want to train your dog to snarl or look scared for the camera, you can try to train your dog to play bow or wag her tail on cue. Really, anything creative will make waves among your friends. I think a cued play bow is even cuter than a cued smile, since it’s unambiguous dog body language!

take a bow

Does your dog like showing off her pearly whites? Share your stories, tips, and tricks in the comments!

About the Author Kayla Fratt

Kayla Fratt is an Associate Certified Dog Behavior Consultant through the IAABC and works as a professional dog trainer through the use of positive reinforcement methods. She also has experience working as a Behavior Technician at Denver Dumb Friends League rehabilitating fearful and reactive dogs.

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