Last week I wrote about my desire to have a tail and all of its functions. (Don’t miss reader’s submissions of “If I Only Had a Brain” re-written with lyrics about a tail. It’ll make your day.) This week I’m going to focus on teeth, prompted by research supported by the Human-Animal Interaction research projects of Waltham, regarding a child’s interpretation of a canine tooth display.
Unlike tails, teeth are a body part that we all share with dogs, but we don’t always use them in similar ways. Generally, we humans show our teeth while smiling, and generally we are usually smiling when we are happy. This, of course, is not always true… think of the strained, cold-eyed smile that we’ve all seen on occasion (I call it the “What a nice dress” smile, said dripping with sarcasm). There is also the nervous smile, which is actually believed to be the forerunner of all smiles; smiles having evolved from the “fear grimace” of other primates.
What we don’t have is the kind of tooth display made by dogs as part of an “offensive pucker,” when the commissures (corners of the mouth) push forward and the upper lip is raised to display the teeth. We see teeth in a dog’s lower jaw all the time when it is relaxed and comfortable, it’s the upper teeth that most often signal a threat in dogs. Conversely, raised lips exposing upper teeth in people is a friendly signal. At least, raising our upper lips like a dog as a threat is not very common. Those of you who have seen my recent seminars might recall the story of doing that very thing myself in a “No Talking” area when grabbed from behind by a male colleague. (For the full story, see The Art and Science of Canine Behavior.) For those of you who don’t know the story, I’ll just summarize by saying that doing a full tooth display to another human is a highly effective way of stopping unwanted behavior.
Below is a great example of a tooth display and agonistic signal from young Lily to her pushy friend who was beginning to play too rough. She wasn’t being aggressive, merely telling the other dog he’d crossed over a line. He got the message and began to mind his manners. Message sent, message received, message acted upon.
However, a full tooth display from a dog turns out not to be an effective way of changing a child’s behavior. Researchers Meints, Racca and Hickey found that “Children from 4-7 years misinterpret dogs’ facial expressions.” Their research suggests that young children might be interpreting an offensive tooth display on a dog’s face as an expression of friendliness rather than a threat. Given that so many bites are to children, this is an important piece of information. (See The Blue Dog Project for more interesting research about children and dogs.)
Children aren’t the only ones who are unsure what the appearance of a dog’s teeth signifies. I’ve had no small number of clients who brought me in because their dog was “snarling” at them, only to discover a Golden Retriever with its head down, body loose and wagging, its ears back and its face taken over by what can only be described as a grin.
Whatever it signifies, we do like to use the word “smile” in association with this particular expression. BARk Magazine even has its own weekly section called Smiling Dogs. Here’s an example of one of the “smilers,” copied with permission of the BARk (thanks!), illustrating a dog showing its upper teeth in what clearly is NOT a threat.
I’d be rich if I had $10 for every time someone has asked me what this display signifies. Fear? Happiness? I’d be even richer if I had an answer. My best guess is that yes, there is fear, and yes, there is something akin to happiness underneath that expression. I see it as an expression of ambivalence, with a component of anxiety or submission, with a little something extra thrown in that we might call happiness. A friend of mine describes a dog’s “smile” as a “S— eating grin, which won’t appear in any academic journal in our lifetime, but might just be as good a description as any. Barbara Handelman, in Canine Behavior: A Photo Illustrated Handbook, calls it a “submissive grin,” which is replicated in much of the canine ethology literature. Like “circle wags” with tails, not all dogs “smile.” Of course, like our smiles, these “grins” from dogs can mean a variety of things, and vary on a continuum from uncomfortable to downright overwhelmed with joy.
Whatever it is, most dogs don’t do it. Willie never grins, Tootsie never grins, and for that matter, I can’t think of any of my dogs who ever did. That’s my question for you: Does your dog raise her upper lip and show her upper teeth in what is clearly not a context of a threat? I’d love to see some research out there on the frequency of grins, and the context in which it is used. I look forward to your thoughts.
(By the way, on another note: Katie reminds me to mention that right now (Dec 16-18) there is free shipping on all domestic orders over $50. Most of these announcements are on Facebook or our mailing list, but not all blog readers get those notices, and we didn’t want you to lose out if you were interested. Ho Ho.)
MEANWHILE, back on the farm. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas (cue the music). There’s snow on the ground and it is appropriately nippy outside. (That’s a bit of an understatement, it was well below zero last night, and windy besides.) Besides the baking and the wrapping and the decorations related to Christmas, I’ve been extra busy getting clearance for Tootsie and me to be part of The Pet Pals Program through the University of Wisconsin Veterinary School. Pet Pals teams visit kids at the American Family Children’s Hospital—one of the premier cancer treatment centers in the country. Tootsie passed her behavioral evaluation, and now we are waiting to hear if she passed her medical examination, required every year for every dog, to ensure that the dogs aren’t bringing in pathogens that could endanger immune-compromised children. I have more hoops to jump through than Tootsie: proof of vaccinations impossible at age 65, believe me, got a blood titer test instead), an evening introduction for volunteers, two TB tests, background checks, interviews, etc etc.
Cross your paws for us, I’m truly excited about being in the program. I’m anxiously awaiting the results of her medical exam, that’s the only barrier that would be likely to stop us. (The exam again is for the protection of the children.) If we make it through, we’ll have our first visit in late January. In preparation, Tootsie is learning some new tricks to entertain the children, and I’m going to take her out and about a bit more to help her be comfortable in new situations. I have no concern about her behavior toward the children, she is as docile as a dog could be. I do, however, feel a great responsibility to make sure that Tootsie enjoys herself, an aspect of “canine assisted therapy” that I think is too often overlooked. She is remarkably social for a mill dog, but she could be overwhelmed by a crowd of noisy people. As Kris Butler says in Therapy Dogs Today, “… each and every handler makes up fifty percent of the team but carries one hundred percent of the responsibility.” I see my primary job as ensuring that both the children, and my dog, are enhanced by the experience.
Here’s Tootsie exploring in the snow tonight. I like the photo because the snow (not color enhanced in any way) looks like cotton candy. The pinkish color is probably caused by the yard light, but even though it’s a bit strange, it’s fun to think of the snow like a great, big blanket of spun sugar.