Why Does My Sheltie Smile?

Is the Sheltie smile real? Dog experts say yes, but it's not for the reason we think. Take a look at the evolutionary roots in wolf behavior and dog psychology that causes your Sheltie to beam at you.

Piper gives a Sheltie smile

The Sheltie smile is an endearing trait and it's not unique to Shetland Sheepdogs. But what's going on when they appear to smile? Are our dogs actually happy or are we just anthropomorphizing them?

What The Experts Say

Can dogs really smile? The experts say yes, but not for the reason we imagine. Wolves smile to indicate submission to another wolf. Equally, dogs instinctively interpret this grin as a sign of submission. It tells them that this particular dog isn't a threat.

Piper gives a Sheltie smile

Confident, alpha dogs rarely smile. They have no desire to show their submission to anyone. And since Shelties are usually gentle, submissive dogs, you're more likely to see them submit with a Sheltie smile. If you think about it, the social smile is what we humans often do too!

An exception is when dogs "laugh" with their upper teeth bared. This is not at all submissive, but is a sign of aggression. If you see a dog making this face (including dear sweet Shelties) then back off quickly.

And sometimes your Sheltie can appear to smile when he's panting, as you can see here when Howard was a puppy. We were having a great game of chase the glove when we paused for a breather and he did this!

Howard gives a Sheltie smile

When The Sheltie Smile Becomes Real

If you think the Shetland Sheepdog smile has just lost its magic... think again. Because experts also concede that eventually a dog's smile can actually become genuine over time, thanks to the psychological effect of classical conditioning.

Remember the famous experiment known as Pavlov's Dogs? Ivan Pavlov, the Russian psychologist, repeatedly rang a bell before giving dogs their dinner. Soon, the dogs began salivating when they heard the bell but there was no food present.

Like Pavlov's Dogs, to reinforce the Sheltie smile, you need to repeatedly reward the behavior: a belly rub, a dog treat, or a nice pat on the head. In this way, we're conditioning our dog's laugh by rewarding this cute behavior every time we see it. This is also the basis of clicker training.

Piper gets a hug for his Sheltie smile

Gently conditioning this kind of submissive behavior in your dog is a good thing. It's his instinct to follow the leader—and you create a happier lifestyle all round when you're able to ensure your dog is well-behaved. So next time you see your Sheltie smile, give him a reward. Everyone wins.